12 April 2006

Mr Wang on Religion and Other Miscellaneous Items

I'd earlier said that I need to stop yakking so much on politics and current affairs. So that's my excuse to yak about other things. This IS my personal blog, after all. Even though journalists, civil servants and approximately other 12,000 people read it every month.

So today I feel like yakking about God, religion, spirituality etc.

Actually I'm very much into this topic. I should say - it is one of the passions of my life. I don't blog about it very much and in real life, I don't even talk to many people about it. Firstly because I view it as an intensely personal matter - everyone's spiritual life is his own, unique, and so is mine. Secondly, because I would creep many people out if they knew how deeply I have been, and still am, into this sort of stuff.

Let's put it this way - I'm not into religion/spirituality in what would normally be regarded as a conventional manner.

But don't worry. On this blog, I won't be creeping you out. I'll be selective about what I choose to say.

Anyway ... where shall I start?

I'll start by saying this - I think that most disputes about religion are started by small minds. Minds which are too tiny to comprehend the words that their mouths utter. (By the way, I'm no guru myself, but size is relative, and some minds are definitely smaller than others).

The problem, as I see it, is that the human mind is unwilling to accept uncertainty. This isn't just a matter of thinking about religion. It's a fundamental problem with the human mind, whatever it is thinking about (science, politics, world peace or the question of where to go for lunch).

Because the individual human mind cannot tolerate uncertainty, it creates constructs for itself. Every day, week, month and year, it takes idea and idea and idea, and it links them up and builds a mental framework around them. This happens over time. This is how the human mind establishes certainty - it builds its own concepts and understanding of what the world is, and then it tells itself, "THIS is how the world is, THIS is how the world works, THIS is how things are."

The framework is never completely static. As the individual goes through life, he encounters new experiences and new ideas, and the new ideas are all absorbed, assimilated and built into the existing framework. This however takes time, effort and energy. So much is invested into building a framework.

Then once in a while, the individual encounters a radically different idea. The idea is so radically different that it cannot easily be absorbed into the framework (for example, the idea that "the earth is not flat, it's round and it revolves around the sun"). The Radical Idea just doesn't fit. For its absorption to take place, huge chunks of the existing framework must be torn down and redesigned. Either that, or the Radical Idea has to be completely rejected (Copernicus, who dared suggest that the earth revolves around the sun rather than the other way around, was burned to death for that).

The tearing-down and the re-design is painful. So much has already been invested in building the existing framework. So much psychological energy would be wasted. So many minds would choose to reject the new idea, the one that can't fit into their existing framework.

And that's what I mean by the problem of the small mind.

Consider any real-life, heated argument. Very often, both parties have already made up their minds. They may believe that they are "discussing", but each of them, applying his own mental framework, has already reached his own conclusion and is merely trying to impose his framework on the other.

The alternative is too painful - to acknowledge that you could be wrong, to reexamine your ideas, beliefs, values and preconceptions, to tear down your framework and rebuild from scratch. It hurts too much.

Some people would rather die (literally) than to give up on their framework. Others would go to war for their framework.

For example, if their established framework tells them, "It's an honour to die for your own country" - it could be too psychologically painful for them to consider the alternative idea that "A country is a rather stupid thing to die for."

Alternatively, if their established framework tells them, "It's an honour to die for your religion" - it could be too psychologically painful for them to consider the alternative idea that "Your religion possibly has no need for you to die for it."

This idea of frameworks is not a Mr Wang original. It has been described and discussed in different ways, in different forms, from different perspectives. One example is in psychiatrist/Christian writer Scott M Peck's book "The Road Less Travelled".

Now, religion (any religion) is a particularly intricate framework. Firstly, there are all the teachings, handed down through the ages. Secondly, there are all the traditional practices in the temple/church/mosque/synagogue. Thirdly, all the teachings shape the individual's mental framework on a whole range of matters. Including society, morals, marriage, sex, money, death, life, afterlife, capital punishment, homosexuality, abortion, the rightness or wrongness of using a condom, what he can or cannot eat, and the creation of the universe.

So the average individual who staunchly follows a religion (any religion) ends up investing a lot of psychological energy building his framework.

And that's why he can get so flustered and angry if you challenge his framework with what, to him, is a Radical Idea. Eg "Your God is false. Mine's the real one." Or "Science says that THIS is how the universe was created. So your religion is wrong." Or "Maybe your Holy Scriptures are slightly wrong about this issue."

He cannot accept such a Radical Idea - never mind whether the idea is true or false or partially true or partially false - the psychological damage to his framework is just too great. Potentially he would have to readjust and revise everything he thinks and believes about society, morals, marriage, sex, money, death, life, afterlife, capital punishment, homosexuality, abortion, the rightness or wrongness of using a condom, what he can or cannot eat, and the creation of the universe.

He may rather prefer to kill you.

That's why I distrust religion. That's why religion is dangerous. There are too many small minds in the world which are unwilling or unable to revise their frameworks.

Now spirituality - as opposed to organised religion - that's another story.

Another story, for another day.

Good karma to you.

22 comments:

Cappella said...

Hi Mr Wang,

Very thought provoking article. Anyway, Buddhist will tell you that you are right. There is no absolute framework. Even the beliefs within the Buddhism is not permanent, if you know what I mean. That is why Buddhists are the most carefree people in the world, and a group of people who will not argue with you in religious talks. :)

PC said...

Bro Wang :o)

When I was about 18 (some 22 years ago *gasp*), grappled with the same issues you talked about.

Basically was trying to fit the concept of "God", His ways... until I read something and it really clicked in my mind...

St Alphonsus(? Can't remember the name of the saint now) was deeply troubled, and was contemplating some deep religious issue. He decided to take a walk along a beach when he saw this boy digging a hole on a beach. When he was done, the boy ran out to the waters, filled his pail and came back, pouring the water into the hole. This went on and on countless times. Finally, St Alphonsus could bear it no longer and asked the boy what he was doing. "I'm trying to move the ocean into the hole"(!)

Finally it hit him, that God was like the ocean, and we're like that little hole. No matter how we try, we can never hope to understand God.

This story changed me from that day on.

Mr Wang Says So said...

Hi Cappella

Buddhism is unusually flexible - the Dalai Lama himself has said quite clearly that if science ever proves any aspect of Buddhist teaching to be wrong, then Buddhists should simply accept that that particular aspect of Buddhist teaching is wrong.

I guess it helps that Buddhism is non-theistic in nature, therefore Buddhists have no need to defend any "God". For them, there IS no God ....

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Hi PC

Thank you. I sense your good intentions. But in my spiritual life, I grapple not with God or other equivalents, but mostly with myself.

Still, on the question of grappling to fit the concept of God into place .... There is this interesting idea put forth by Deepak Chopra that man is genetically designed to search for God.

In other words, raise a bunch of newborn babes on a desert island, isolate them from the rest of the world, never breathe a word to them about God, heaven, hell, the devil ....

but some of them will nevertheless grow up and evolve some concept of god/spirit, hear an inner voice, develop a ritual to communicate with the Unknowable, or strive to express Him in their art.

Mr Wang Says So said...

Cappella

You might be interested to read this.

chrischoo said...

I sense this is more a case of fundamentals against liberals. In the case of Christianity, some would have you believe the world is 10,000 years old, that every single word in their Bible should be interpreted literally despite the fact that the gospels were written tens of years after the time of Jesus, and that all teachings they learn are not to be questioned. On the other hand there are philosophers who search their whole lives, write some pretty searching stuff, and then come to their own conclusion about what they believe to be true, such as C. S. Lewis for instance. Some others also discover how religions cross-fertilize each other, how practices are transmitted in part or whole from one religion to another, and then refuse to take sides because of the uncertainty of it all. Who can blame them?

Personally I think it is a matter of trust and faith, and nobody despite their religion should be denied the right to believe what they wish. It just pains me to see that people can go to war over these things, which are so subjective in nature.

And of course, sneaky fellas in power play on these insecurities to justify their actions, however deplorable they might be. Take Iran for instance, which is ruled by the Ayatollahs, or maybe even the misguided actions of a certain world superpower keen on "liberating" the Middle East.

Some things are just not universal and religion appears to be one of them, despite how I think some people would say I am blaspheming by writing this. We'll only know who's right after we die, so cast your lots on which religion you think is righter than others now :)

budak said...

I would like to think that religion that is private and internalised is most likely to lead to true spirituality, while it seems that organised religion that seeks to intrude into the public spheres easily becomes a means (and very effective one at that!) of controlling people and wielding power in the name of faith.

Anonymous said...

religion is just plain stupid. it is fancies and imaginings for answers grown rigid and intricate, an elaborate sophistry for a lie, or an inadequacy.

whilst some babes in your island of babes will "hear voices" etc, I believe that's because a lack of knowledge/description of the world.

the rational mind has no need of any of the "current" gods.. with their extraordinary claims and utter lack of empirical evidence..

I'd like to see the resurrection of a pile of ash..

someone once said (to the effect)
there are crutches left behind at lourdes, but never any wooden legs.


the placebo effect is powerful.

Anonymous said...

according to Mr Wang's definitions religion is not so much belief, but a system of constructs handed down over time.

Mr Wang may be right, religion may be dangerous in this sense. This may apply to all constructs - The Consitution, the Hippocratic Oath - given enough time, without amendment or adaptation. Even with amendments and adaptations, none of our constructs can be harnessed for purely beneficial use. Even definition "beneficial" can be argued to be a contruct.

The point Mr. Wang is probably trying to say is that dogmatism brings forth tragedy. What we believe or practice should be tempered both by critical examination of facts and accommodation of human sensitivities.

the only problem is that religion, at its very base, is Man's (or God's) determination/explanation of right and wrong. And right and wrong is something we can't really temper. Sure, circumstances can mitigate, but there may be just too many gray areas... And the consequences are often painted to be too dire to muddle through.

But to do away with right/wrong... that's something not everyone's prepared to do (the words "chaos" and "anarchy" and their negative connotations come to mind). So in the end, we're left with constructs that simplifies life, and yet complicates it.

It is interesting that there's a branch of mathematics that have proven that we cannot reduce all phenomenon into a finite set of rules such that everything can be explained. Perhaps that's what life is. Now, whether is makes life interesting or scary, or proves the existence of God, or otherwise, is something that is open to debate.

The other point is probably that power accumulates when enough people pull their weight simultaneously. Religion, and all organised groups such as goverments and armies, are capable of much change. When coupled with dogmatism...

But it is precisely these groups that can be capable of positive change (whatever that may be). Of course, few of them will work without the inspiration (or will) of one or a few good person, but by and large, it is the organisation that does most of the work.

Karl Marx was probably right about history being about class struggles, except it may not be the specific classes he mentioned, though it's certainly at least partially about economics.

Taoist dualism is probably right - forces conflict with and complement each other.

If mathematics was right, we would probably only know what it is all about when the jigsaw is all in place, only to find that it makes no sense...

Anonymous said...

Mr Wang,

Isn't talking about religion worse than talking about politics? Let's go back to political discussion please!

lbandit said...

"The point Mr. Wang is probably trying to say is that dogmatism brings forth tragedy. What we believe or practice should be tempered both by critical examination of facts and accommodation of human sensitivities.

the only problem is that religion, at its very base, is Man's (or God's) determination/explanation of right and wrong. And right and wrong is something we can't really temper. Sure, circumstances can mitigate, but there may be just too many gray areas... And the consequences are often painted to be too dire to muddle through."

It would be far more dangerous to exempt religion from critical examination than to hallow it as the basis of determining right from wrong.

If critical examination is not applied to religion, or all things religious, then how does one propose to identify an organised cult from an organised religion?

Imo, there's no substantial need to refer to any religion to be capable of differentiating right from wrong.
People without any religious beliefs can be ethical people too.

Kontiki said...

Lee Kuan Yew said this in a interview with Time, Dec 2005: "... I've seen my closest friend [former Finance Minister] Hon Sui Sen on his deathbed; he had had a heart attack and was fighting for his life, doctors were there, the priest was there, but there was no fear in his eyes. He and his wife were devout Catholics. They were both convinced they would meet again in the hereafter. I believe a man or a woman who has deep faith in God has an enormous strength facing crises, an advantage in life."
Now dwell on this: if LKY was a God fearing man, will Singapore be better off?

Anonymous said...

Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the masses.

The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their REAL happiness. To call on them to give up their illusions about their condition is to call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions. The criticism of religion is, therefore, in embryo, the criticism of that vale of tears of which religion is the halo.

amatu said...

The creator of god is god.

lbandit said...

"The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their REAL happiness."

I do believe that this is quite true. I doubt that the world would neccessarily be a better place if religion were to be abolished.

"The criticism of religion is, therefore, in embryo, the criticism of that vale of tears of which religion is the halo."

If religion were all about happiness, then there would be no need to criticise it.

Anonymous said...

lbandit:

Pain and sadness will always exist, sometimes without any reason.

Most ppl cannot face that fact, it is too traumatic to be somber all the time.

They need to be sedated to remain sane.

Religion is the opium that the masses need to sedate themselves.

Stephan H. Wissel said...

It wouldn't harm to cite when you quote. "Religion is Opium for the masses" was uttered by Karl Marx. Very often religion is used as an escape root to be able to bear the miseries of life. A few blessed ones turn it the other way and make their religion (or spirituality in Mr. Wangs notation) the source of strength to reduce the miseries in their and other lives.
There is a little Zen story that nicely fits here: "An old and a young devil were walking the earth. Suddenly the young one burst out: look over there, this human found a piece of truth. We must stop him before he is spreading it! Relax replied the older devil. He for sure will turn it into a framework so it can't spread".

Stephan H. Wissel said...

... and I need to practise my spelling.. root vs. route

djg said...

ibandit:

"It would be far more dangerous to exempt religion from critical examination than to hallow it as the basis of determining right from wrong.

If critical examination is not applied to religion, or all things religious, then how does one propose to identify an organised cult from an organised religion?

Imo, there's no substantial need to refer to any religion to be capable of differentiating right from wrong.
People without any religious beliefs can be ethical people too."

I think the point is not to exclude religion from critical examination, but that all examinations are "constructs" - points of view. While it is certainly agreed that one should always examine religion (indeed all things that matter) critically, the problem arises when we try to figure out right from wrong.

Take for example, differentiating cults and religion. Most religions agree that cannibalism is extremely wrong, but the certain lesser known tribes still practise it. Is it right or wrong? Modern civilised people consider it wrong and gruesome (myself included), but in the eyes of a minor group (and in their context), it is fine. Perhaps the only difference between a cult and official religion is numbers. It wouldn't be surprising that at some point in time, a major religion (or a faction of it that is now accepted) was considered a cult.

In some ways, this idea is an extension of the quote "History belongs to the victor" and "survival of the fittest".

That people without religious beliefs can be ethical too is also undeniable. Again the only problem is the definition of the word "ethical", which pretty much requires us to construct a set of rules determining right from wrong.
Some of these are invariably passed to us from religious influences, other than atheistic or personal experience or revelation. So there may be no denial of their influence.

Stephan H. Wissel's story about the finding of truth pretty much describes the problem of power and dogma - when illumination is found, some choose to wield it as a source of power, others expand its meanings beyond itself. Even with the well meaning ones, the truth gets lost along the way, with misinterpretation, reinterpretaion, ommissions, miscommunications etc.

Still, a central issue is - apart from what the mores, norms, customs and traditions are - what is right or wrong? Do they change over time? Over technology? The latter seems increasingly an influence. Religions used to occupy *the* dominant seat in that field, any may never be completely dispensed with, but the future seems interesting.

Some would say "do unto others..." but what we would like to be done to us differs, by great or lesser extents. Thus, while it can conceivably be a broadbrush measure, it does fail, not infrequently, when applied individually.

Again, that said, perhaps, this is the uncertainty we have to live with. Some whose belief is in an absolute authority often sacrifice their faculties of thought. Should they think that their belief shields them from uncertainty, they might be mistaken. In a large number of factions of major religions, the ultimate certainty to strive for (heaven, nirvana and the like) involves sieving through nonsense and undergoing trials, and none of one's actions completely guarantees success. The non-religious have parallels in their pursuit of ethics/morality.

So, the religious may be self-deluding if they think uncertainty can be avoided by prescribing to a set of rules, or that they are not contributors to their group's.

This may easily be applied to politics...

lbandit said...

djg:

"Perhaps the only difference between a cult and official religion is numbers. It wouldn't be surprising that at some point in time, a major religion (or a faction of it that is now accepted) was considered a cult."

That may well be the case today, that the only difference between a cult and official religion is numbers.

But i do not believe that large numbers should be automatically taken to be correct. If that were the case, we would still be dealing with slavery today. Slavery was at one time, commonly accepted.

"That people without religious beliefs can be ethical too is also undeniable. Again the only problem is the definition of the word "ethical", which pretty much requires us to construct a set of rules determining right from wrong.
Some of these are invariably passed to us from religious influences, other than atheistic or personal experience or revelation. So there may be no denial of their influence.
"

I doubt the claim that the source of morals could be from religion. If religion is a construct, i would say it is a meme. A self replicating meme.

Sure, there are adherants to religion who do not wish to spread their religion. But i have not come across a religion that specifically demands that adherants not spread the teachings.

Anyone can blah any meme out, but it would take substantial persuasive power for a religious meme to take hold. This is where, imo, morals would come in.

Compare a religion that teaches all that is bad and a religion that teaches common and easily accepted morals. It would not be difficult to identify which is a cult. For any religion to survive, it must adopt good and easily accepted morals.

Cappella said...

In relation to PC's post, maybe this will also tell the story in a different angle.

A master tells a group of seekers that the spiritual process is like filling a sieve with water. Reflecting upon the image, the disciples grow depressed. You can’t fill a sieve with water! What is he saying? That we’ll never become full? That it’s impossible to fill worldly life with the Sacred?

When the students voice their dilemma, the teacher takes them to a beach and tosses a sieve into the ocean. It floats for a moment, then sinks. "Now it is filled with water," he says. "That is how to do spiritual practice: throw yourself completely into the Divine.

djg said...

lbandit:

"But i do not believe that large numbers should be automatically taken to be correct. If that were the case, we would still be dealing with slavery today. Slavery was at one time, commonly accepted."

It is agreed that numbers shouldn't be taken as correct, but perhaps numbers changed because views changed.

As for "For any religion to survive, it must adopt good and easily accepted morals." Perhaps, it may be venture to add a qualification to this: "... it must adopt morals that are (at the current period) considered good and easily accepted.

Some might dispute this, but it seems that the views, and hence rules, of each religion evolves over time. The jury's still out on whether this is because of further enlightenment, or simply a survival adaptation.

Thus, it does look like that concepts of right and wrong changes over time, which makes things seem complicated, doesn't it?

lbandit said...

djg:
If the rules or views of a religion would change over time, would it not serve as an indication that religion is not the source of rules or views that indicate good morals? In the said evolution of rules, do 'times' adapt to religion changing rules, or religion change rules to adapt to current times?