Posts Tagged Religion

Something Beyond Our Selves

The uncertainty of the danger belongs to the essence of terrorism.
~ Jurgen Habermas
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As I write this, I am shaken, confused, scared, angry… today morning I nearly lost sensation in my legs, I stood trembling in a dark corridor for an hour and fifteen minutes hearing the macabre symphony of grenades for snares and the terrifying staccato of 39mm AK-47 rounds ricocheting on walls and floors, and whizzing through the air, and ripping through human beings whose only mistake was to be non-locals and followers of a different faith that had chosen to try their luck in Mandera. This all took place a mere fifty metres from where I was trying to catch forty winks before being awoken by the loud bang of an Improvised Explosive Device whose purpose was to blow open the gate to a compound that held over thirty souls whose lives were about to be put on a knife’s edge by extremists who have no respect for the sanctity of life. At the end of the carnage, six were dead, scores were injured, and the police and other armed forces then kept the town on edge for hours as they shot continuously into the air targeting remorseless phantoms that had already disappeared into the night with innocent blood on their hands.

Those 75 minutes were excruciatingly long and hard, they brought me face to face with myself. I contemplated the worst. I was numb. But in all this, I remembered something I had read in a book recently: confronting the reality of our own mortality is important because it obliterates all the crappy, fragile, superficial values in life. While most people whittle their days chasing another buck, or a little bit more fame and attention, or a little bit more assurance that they’re right or loved, death confronts all of us with a far more painful and important question: What is your legacy?

Allow me to share a story from this book with you.

“Ernest Becker was an academic outcast. In 1960, he got his Ph.D. in anthropology; his doctoral research compared the unlikely and unconventional practices of Zen Buddhism and psychoanalysis. At the time, Zen was seen as something for hippies and drug addicts, and Freudian psychoanalysis was considered a quack form of psychology left over from the Stone Age.
In his first job as an assistant professor, Becker quickly fell into a crowd that denounced the practice of psychiatry as a form of fascism. They saw the practice as an unscientific form of oppression against the weak and helpless.

The problem was that Becker’s boss was a psychiatrist. So it was kind of like walking into your first job and proudly comparing your boss to Hitler.
As you can imagine, he was fired.

So Becker took his radical ideas somewhere that they might be accepted: Berkeley, California. But this, too, didn’t last long.

Because it wasn’t just his anti-establishment tendencies that got Becker into trouble; it was his odd teaching methods as well. He would use Shakespeare to teach psychology, psychology textbooks to teach anthropology, and anthropological data to teach sociology. He’d dress up as King Lear and do mock sword fights in class and go on long political rants that had little to do with the lesson plan. His students adored him. The other faculty loathed him. Less than a year later, he was fired again.

Becker then landed at San Francisco State University, where he actually kept his job for more than a year. But when student protests erupted over the Vietnam War, the university called in the National Guard and things got violent. When Becker sided with the students and publicly condemned the actions of the dean (again, his boss being Hitleresque and everything), he was, once again, promptly fired.

Becker changed jobs four times in six years. And before he could get fired from the fifth, he got colon cancer. The prognosis was grim. He spent the next few years bedridden and had little hope of surviving. So Becker decided to write a book. This book would be about death.

Becker died in 1974. His book The Denial of Death, would win the Pulitzer Prize and become one of the most influential intellectual works of the twentieth century, shaking up the fields of psychology and anthropology, while making profound philosophical claims that are still influential today.

The Denial of Death essentially makes two points:

1. Humans are unique in that we’re the only animals that can conceptualize and think about ourselves abstractly. Dogs don’t sit around and worry about their career. Cats don’t think about their past mistakes or wonder what would have happened if they’d done something differently. Monkeys don’t argue over future possibilities, just as fish don’t sit around wondering if other fish would like them more if they had longer fins.
As humans, we’re blessed with the ability to imagine ourselves in hypothetical situations, to contemplate both the past and the future, to imagine other realities or situations where things might be different. And it’s because of this unique mental ability, Becker says, that we all, at some point, become aware of the inevitability of our own death. Because we’re able to conceptualize alternate versions of reality, we are also the only animal capable of imagining a reality without ourselves in it.
This realization causes what Becker calls “death terror,” a deep existential anxiety that underlies everything we think or do.

2. Becker’s second point starts with the premise that we essentially have two “selves.” The first self is the physical self—the one that eats, sleeps, snores, and poops. The second self is our conceptual self—our identity, or how we see ourselves.
Becker’s argument is this: We are all aware on some level that our physical self will eventually die, that this death is inevitable, and that its inevitability—on some unconscious level—scares the shit out of us. Therefore, in order to compensate for our fear of the inevitable loss of our physical self, we try to construct a conceptual self that will live forever. This is why people try so hard to put their names on buildings, on statues, on spines of books. It’s why we feel compelled to spend so much time giving ourselves to others, especially to children, in the hopes that our influence—our conceptual self—will last way beyond our physical self. That we will be remembered and revered and idolized long after our physical self ceases to exist.

Becker called such efforts our “immortality projects,” projects that allow our conceptual self to live on way past the point of our physical death. All of human civilization, he says, is basically a result of immortality projects: the cities and governments and structures and authorities in place today were all immortality projects of men and women who came before us. They are the remnants of conceptual selves that ceased to die. Names like Jesus, Muhammad, Napoleon, and Shakespeare are just as powerful today as when those men lived, if not more so. And that’s the whole point. Whether it be through mastering an art form, conquering a new land, gaining great riches, or simply having a large and loving family that will live on for generations, all the meaning in our life is shaped by this innate desire to never truly die.

Religion, politics, sports, art, and technological innovation are the result of people’s immortality projects. Becker argues that wars and revolutions and mass murder occur when one group of people’s immortality projects rub up against another group’s. Centuries of oppression and the bloodshed of millions have been justified as the defense of one group’s immortality project against another’s.

But, when our immortality projects fail, when the meaning is lost, when the prospect of our conceptual self outliving our physical self no longer seems possible or likely, death terror—that horrible, depressing anxiety—creeps back into our mind. Trauma can cause this, as can shame and social ridicule. As can, as Becker points out, mental illness.

Becker later came to a startling realization on his deathbed: that people’s immortality projects were actually the problem, not the solution; that rather than attempting to implement, often through lethal force, their conceptual self across the world, people should question their conceptual self and become more comfortable with the reality of their own death. Becker called this “the bitter antidote,” and struggled with reconciling it himself as he stared down his own demise. While death is bad, it is inevitable. Therefore, we should not avoid this realization, but rather come to terms with it as best we can. Because once we become comfortable with the fact of our own death—the root terror, the underlying anxiety motivating all of life’s frivolous ambitions—we can then choose our values more freely, unrestrained by the illogical quest for immortality, and freed from dangerous dogmatic views.”

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Do you really have a good reason for having all these babies?

A baby first laughs at the age of four weeks. By that time his eyes focus well enough to see you clearly.

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Bundles of joy, huh....

Today I intend to broach a subject that will probably have friends and foes picketing outside my humble abode armed with pitchforks.

Today I address the matter of children; to have or not to have them.

Now I will be the first to confess that, being someone with close to three decades of existence on this planet, there seems to be an inherent tendency to sow oats and propagate our genetic lineages, that is by itself a very rational, albeit selfish, need; for it ensures the survival of the human race. However this are hardly the days when any amorous virile male would just creep on a wench, bent over a stream fetching water, and role play Dr. Kitch, the unqualified physician with his terrible needle, fully content that the village would raise whatever came off the hanky panky.

This are days in which we face peril left, right and centre. If terrorists won’t blow us to smithereens, the inevitable frying from global warming will probably make us view Noah’s flood in better light (gives a whole new literal twist to having a bun in the oven), if natural disasters do not spell our end, the growling of our empty tummies might be the last sound the emaciated starving tummies will hear as a planetary hunger epidemic fills its quota in the service of the grim reaper.

The long and short of my gloomy outlook is that life as we know it is a burden, a burden we should think long and hard before inflicting on another person.

I cannot simply dismiss the pros for having children, after all one of the best reasons I can think of is ironically the fact I am here to write this, however that fact is also one the reasons I question what motivates everyone to blindly leap into the world of parenthood.

I have done some casual research (thank God for google) and tried to find reasons people have for having children, suffice is to say most of them are flimsy to outright ridiculous, but then to each his own. Reasons listed for having children include:

  • To improve a relationship between spouses
  • Keep up with friends and relatives in a breeding race
  • To create a family
  • To take on a new challenge
  • To seize the moment
  • Because you love kids
  • To spread joy
  • To accept destiny
  • Religion orders so

If I were to exhaustively pick apart each of the reasons above we would be here all day, I will simply try to address the points in one-liners.

  1. Children can improve relationships between spouses but not in the way they imagine, if a relationship was bad to begin with introducing a third party who becomes  a constant reminder of the bile between couples is, to put it mildly, an asinine move. At best a pretense at an improved relationship will ensue, at worst an ultimate breakdown will leave a bitter abandoned child in its wake, one who will probably carry on the cycle in the future.
  2. If you believe that you should have a fifth child because your sister has had one then I really do not even know where to begin, doing an IQ test would be a good thing too.
  3. Creating a family is a noble thing, however most of us cannot even run our own lives, so how do we decide that we can run other people’s lives? The hogwash that by bringing up a hapless soul into the confused maze we dwell in will straighten our lives is horseshit, a child should not be an experiment in whether we will ever change or not.
  4. To take on a new challenge is no good reason either, most of us view the challenge of taking care of a pet such as a dog as something insurmountable, yet we somehow think a human being will be easier to deal with. If you need a new challenge, try mountain climbing.
  5. Seizing a moment is another way of saying on a whim, the only thing one should ever do on the spur of the moment is something reversible or that can be dismissed as yet another lesson, a child isn’t such a thing.
  6. If you love kids, and most of us do, it’s still not a good enough reason, a lot of people love manicured lawns until they realize the trouble it takes to keep them looking so. Loving an elephant is no reason to buy one.
  7. To spread joy is simply a cliché that I will not bother to break down.
  8. To accept destiny is a vague reason that can be used to evade just about every irrational act we engage in.
  9. Go forth and fill and fill the planet and children are a gift from God are both reasons given by the sheeple for incessant breeding, however it never seems to dawn on parents who are sold on religious zealotry that holy books are not edible, a brood of children will not be fed on prayer alone. With 300,000 children being lost to hunger annually, we seriously need to think through the reasons to having children besides a call to fill the earth (which is already full by reasonable estimates)

I cannot simply disabuse parents or potential parents of the notion that there are many valid reasons to having kids without listing some reason why some of us take a different  view. Reasons one can choose not to have children include:

  • You can pass of hereditary conditions such as diabetes, polydactylism, senility or even stupidity and ugliness
  • Character traits and tendencies towards such things as drug and alcohol addiction, compulsive obsessive behavior and psychosis can be passed onto children.
  • Cost: Every parent wants to give their children a better life than they had, if you’re unable to do so then why subject a child to a menial existence and the drudgery of life at the bottom of the barrel.
  • Religion: many of us profess the religion of our parents, most of us are too afraid to have an honest look at other faiths and are hence held captive by fear and indoctrination. Why subject another person to such turmoil when you have no answers yourself to the questions of life?
  • Lastly I will get back to the  beginning of the post, in the past it literally took a village to raise a child, unfortunately that is not the case anymore, with hundreds of homeless children and street kids teeming in every alley, what right do we have to add to the count on the planet if we don’t have the heart to take care of those already here?

With that said, I will probably have some kids myself as I have no illusions that my thinking will sway my mother or wife for that matter. Men, it seems, have little say on whether they want children or not.

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Atheism and Religion; musings of a troubled heart

The American’s have inscribed on their green backs “In God we trust”, Our own national anthem starts with the words “Oh God of all creation” and Schools such as our beloved Bush are rooted in Christian values….. that is on the surface. At an individual level , I am finding it increasingly difficult to blindly bow to religious beliefs, I pray every night as a habit and often when in the doldrums silently plead under my breath for divine intervention, beyond that; I find sermons either boring regurgitations of improbable myths or religious chicanery meant to extort the ‘sheep’ or pure scare-mongering of the hell and brimstone kind that serves no purpose but to drive fear into imperfect humans who cannot outwit the various temptations on offer in this times. I find that I am questioning religion critically each passing day, I ask myself what it means to say your religion is right when it was imposed on you by foreigners who themselves had been barbarians on whom the Roman empire forced a ‘pimped’ version of a Judeo-Christian religion. How can I wholly embrace a religion that has in the past been used as a justification to classify Africans as just hairless orangutans and a race cursed to slavery and open game for heartless pillage; a religion that has over the centuries been used as justification for bloody battles in the form of crusades and the burning of hapless peasants for being witches when their only crime was to be born deformed or disabled?
I have taken to distrusting both preachers and politicians with equal measure and ignoring what they say contemptuously and disdainfully (its arrant ignorance to listen to cock and bull tales of heavenly wealth awaiting you from a tele-evangelist preaching out of his Bentley or gulf stream, asking you to donate your 50 dollars just as it is most hypocritical and pitiful to see a politician tell you about the change they will make in your life because they are your ‘brother’ and they just need your vote)
Does this quote sound believable only to me?
“Men will never be free until the last king is strangled with the entrails of the last priest.” — Denis Diderot

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