“If any question why we died,
Tell them, because our fathers lied.”
That’s from Rudyard Kipling’s poem about the first world war, quoted by Roger Cohen in a great column in today’s New York Times. If you look at how we got into the war in Iraq, you’ll see that things haven’t changed much in the last century.
In another of Kipling’s poems from the same period, we see that the origins of financial crises haven’t changed much either:
“In the Carboniferous Epoch we were promised abundance for all,
By robbing selected Peter to pay for collective Paul:”
Cohen’s theme is the difference between reality on the one hand, and fiction, fantasy, and wishful thinking on the other. When we lose sight of reality, the result is mayhem and suffering of one kind or another. He concludes the piece with a call for realists in the White House.
I’d like to add that an increase in the number of realists in the general population is not a bad idea either, and for proof of that—if you need any—you should certainly see Bill Maher in “Religulous”. (A great interview with Maher and the director, Larry Charles, is here.)
In spite of Maher’s wonderful sense of humor, I didn’t find myself laughing much. The extent of fantasy, fiction, and wishful thinking in most religions has too many unfortunate consequences for levity, and trying to show believers how out of touch with reality they are is a hopeless task, as Maher’s efforts in that direction demonstrate. His only offer of hope is that, in this country, there are 16 million people who are non-religious, and given the success of other, much smaller minorities in securing their rights, there is reason to think that non-believers might advance their own rights as well—if they got organized.
One of the major difficulties in short-circuiting the deleterious consequences of religion was illustrated in an interview with two young former Mormon’s who fully appreciated the fantasy elements of that religion. When Maher asked why more Mormons didn’t reject these fanciful beliefs, the answer was that to do so was social suicide: rejection by family, friends, and community.
Therein lies a great difficulty in trying to inject reality into any religion. Renouncing the religion you were raised in often means a loss of social identity, as well as the personal sense of who you are, and that is a difficult prospect to face unless life has prepared you for it. Perhaps our greatest cause for hope is that the march of science and technology will prepare people for this transition to a new identity; educate them in ways of thinking critically, with a greater respect for the constraints of reality.
Science implies the connectedness of everything, although unfortunately that connectedness is not emphasized as often as it could be. In our interdependence with everything else through the dynamic processes that move the universe, it is possible to forge a vision of ourselves, an identity, that unites all of humankind rather than dividing us into opposing sects as religions do.
Tom Clark does a great job of presenting that kind of reality-based view of ourselves and of our relationships with each other and the encompassing universe. Here is his introduction to a wealth of resources on the subject:
“Although naturalism may at first seem an unlikely basis for spirituality, a naturalistic vision of ourselves and the world can inspire and inform spiritual experience. Naturalism understands such experience as psychological states constituted by the activity of our brains, but this doesn’t lessen the appeal of such experience, or render it less profound. Appreciating the fact of our complete inclusion in nature can generate feelings of connection and meaning that rival those offered by traditional religions, and those feelings reflect the empirical reality of our being at home in the cosmos.”
Among those resources are several that refer to Buddhism or enlightenment, which points up Buddhism’s lack of supernatural fantasies compared to most other organized religions. Perhaps that and the fact that Buddhists are not advocating anyone’s annihilation are why Maher’s film makes no reference to them.
Science, technology, education, and communication—more of these could diminish the fictions, fantasies, and wishful thinking that lead to wars and financial crises.
A Real Beauty
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