big ideas, religion, retroview

Retroview: Happiness: A Guide

Matthieu Ricard’s Happiness: A Guide to Developing Life’s Most Important Skill is probably the most important book in my life. No work has ever influenced so many aspects of my life or caused me to see the world so differently. Were there only one book that I could take with my to a desert island, I think this would very likely be it.

All of this is not to say that the book is flawless. On the second reading, some parts of the book seemed superfluous. Most memorably, the results of scientific studies which Ricard dutifully reports are interesting, but not as good as much of the rest of the book.

All of this may lead to the most important question: what is this book about? And were I a more careful writer I would edit this to answer that question at the start. Alas, I am not.

The book is, as you can probably infer from the title, a how-to to happiness. As such, the label “self-help” could be applied to it, but that conjures up images of hundreds of unsavory hucksters and swindlers who claim that they’ll make your life better in a snap. This book does no such thing.

Ricard, as the spelling of his name signals, is French by birth. He’s also a Buddhist monk who spends his time between Nepal and Tibet, serving as a translator for the Dalai Lama. And though it would be reasonable to say that Ricard’s answer to happiness grows out of Buddhism, one needn’t understand the first thing about the practice to get something from Ricard’s book.

Many, upon first introduction to Buddhism, see it not as a religion, but as a philosophy or even a type of positive psychology. The fact that Buddhism takes no explicit stance on the existence of deities (or a deity) makes this interpretation easier. And though Buddhism can be endowed with as many dogmatic traditions as any Western religion, the parts which Ricard discusses are not.

For those doubters of Buddhism (and religions in general), Mr. Ricard does conveniently provides scientific evidence–that stuff I said was dull–that Buddhist practice can and does make people happier, more controlled, and peaceful.

All of this is not to say that Happiness is some extended argument for Buddhism as the happiest religion in the world. It is, at the most basic level, an introduction to what thoughts and practices have made Mr. Ricard “the happiest man in the world.” (It was, if you’re wondering, that article that led me to the book in the first place.)

This book didn’t by itself transform my thinking, but it clarified and made much more salient some arguments that I’d been hearing for sometime and not fully understanding. The triviality of difference. The merits of optimism. The way to value all time. The wastefulness of envy.

It’s very likely that you could read this book and recieve from it much less than I have. It’s even possible that I received from this book more than it endeavored to give. But I can say with firm conviction that this book could teach everyone something, and many a great deal. After two readings, I still look forward to returning to it again and again, getting as much as I possibly can.

OPW, religion

OPW: The Ethics of Belief

Since I’ve been writing about ignorance, I thought a quote on a similar topic was in order. This quotation is from W. K. Clifford, an atheist philosopher and mathematician, who argued that faith is both irrational and immoral. You can read the (almost) full text of “The Ethics of Belief” online, if you’re interested. It was Clifford’s work that spurred William James to write “The Will to Believe,” which was previously on “Other People’s Words.” Though I now find Clifford’s strident tone off-putting, there was a time this quote was very important to me.

No simplicity of mind, no obscurity of station, can escape the duty of questioning all that we believe.

It is true that this duty is a hard one, and the doubt which comes out of it is often a very bitter thing. It leaves us bare and powerless where we thought were safe and strong. To know all about anything is to know how to deal with it under all circumstances. We feel much happier and secure when we think we know precisely what to do, no matter what happens, than when we have lost our way and do not know where to turn. …we naturally do not like to find that we are really ignorant and powerless, that we have to begin again at the beginning, and try to learn what the thing is and how it is to be dealt with–if indeed anything can be learned about it. It is the sense of knowledge that makes men desirous of belief and afraid of doubting.

To sum up: it is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence.

If a man, holding a belief which he was taught in childhood or persuaded of afterwards, keeps down and pushes away any doubt which arise about it in his mind, purposely avoids the reading of books and the company of men that call in question or discuss it, and regards as impious those questions which cannot easily be asked without disturbing it–the life of that man is one long sin against mankind.

politics, religion, USA, world

Being Under Attack: War, Genocide, Terrorism & Nuclear Proliferation

I’m fairly certain that the most dangerous people in the world are those that nihilistically believe that their group–especially one they find essential to their identity–is under attack. Many relatively powerless people with such fears, rational or otherwise, resort to terrorism. Having no ability to defend their group through conventional warfare, they strike anything and everything they see as endangering their desired order of the world.

Some people who foster this type of fear are able to carry out traditional war, Hitler was. So was Abraham Lincoln in 1861, the American rebels in 1775, and the Israelis in 1967. There are literally hundreds of examples of wars that began with fear–likely as many examples as there are wars–so I’ll move on.

Additionally, many with such fears are able to systematically kill the “other” that’s they see as threatening them, this is something Hitler did, but so did Pol Pot, Slobodan Milosevic, the Rwandan Hutus, and–depending on who you ask–the Turks during the First World War.

This is not to say that all the above examples came to exist only because of a fear that a group was under threat, certainly some of these examples were furthered as much by a greedy thirst for power as for legitimate fear about the future. But that doesn’t mean that aspiring despots don’t, at least, appeal to ideas of external threat from a people’s common enemy. This is, generally, the essential method they use to gain the power they need to become true despots. Anyone with even a faint notion of 1930s Germany knows that’s exactly what Hitler did–convinced the German people that their superior race was being mongrelized and would perish if they didn’t help him to expand their empire.

Further, some people acting against such an existential threat–real or imagined–may not comprehend the ideology they’re defending. Certainly some young Muslims are simply becoming terrorists because they feel that they are supposed to. This was also true of most Germans that became Nazis, something Hannah Arendt made clear to the world in Eichmann in Jerusalem, from which we inherit the idea of “the banality of evil.”

But I think most Islamic terrorists believe–or would at least claim to believe–that Israel and the West pose an existential threat to the Muslim way of life. Such a party line is what you’d expect to hear from any group “at war” with any other.

Spain’s Basque separatists, and the more moderate separatists in Quebec, also believe that their peculiar way of life–different from their surrounding country–would collapse were they not acting to defend it. This view is probably not accurate, but it doesn’t stop them from holding it.

And these aren’t the only groups seek territorial integrity for their way of life. The famous Irish Republican Army was established to defend the Irish way of life from the British incursion in the northern part of their island. Thankfully that struggle is essentially over, but many, including the Basques, the Chechens in Russia, and the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka, continue to fight.

Separatists, terrorist groups, and nations can turns to some scary techniques when they feel their existence is threatened. Perhaps the most notable example of this is nuclear weaponry, but it is certainly not the only.

History has made clear that the only reason Albert Einstein pushed the Americans to develop nuclear weapons was his belief that the German Nazis were doing the same thing. The Soviet Union developed nuclear weapons because of the threat posed by the American warheads. Britain and France developed the technology for fear of the Soviet Union. China developed them for fear of the West, and perhaps the USSR. Israel possesses nuclear weapons because it is so profoundly insecure in the Middle East. India and Pakistan developed the warheads for fear of China, but mostly for fear of each other. North Korea has developed them for fear that China’s not committed to its protection. Iran is now seeking nuclear technology for fear of its neighbors–especially, but not exclusively, Israel.

I think it’s reasonable to claim that all terrorist organizations and nuclear powers developed in profound fear for their security. Genocides, too, seem to arise from the idea that one ethnic group is threatened by another.

Closer to home, some have argued that this systematic rhetoric of danger is essentially what George W. Bush has used, with varying degrees of success, since September 11, 2001. That he convinced Congress and the country that they faced an immediate and systematic threat from the mythical forces of “Islamofacism” which constitute the “Axis of Evil.” Whether or not this supposed threat ever existed, it could certainly be argued that it’s the primary reason the United States is still entrenched in Iraq.

Whether or not this was ever Bush’s goal, the idea that Bush effectively used terrorism to fight those he considered to be terrorists is, at best, bitterly ironic.

Perhaps then, if all disturbances to peace–war, genocide, terrorism, and nuclear proliferation–are caused by some variant of fear, world peace is as simple as convincing all people in all parts of the world that they have nothing to fear from external forces.

Unfortunately, I’m relatively certain that this is easier to say than to do.

OPW, religion

OPW: The Dilemma of Belief

Today’s “Other People’s Worlds” is about the age-old question of belief versus atheism. It’s also a rather oddly cited quote, for which I apologize. It comes from the philosopher William James’s “The Will to Believe,” one of the most famous Christian apologetics. In it, James argues that belief (in God) is a choice that one must make, and by equating agnosticism with atheism, he says there are essentially two choices. As an apologist, James argued in favor of belief.

However, in this passage, James is quoting Fitz James Stephen who talks about the religious choices that underpin a person’s life. (I have taken some liberties with the formatting.)

I began by a reference to Fitz James Stephen; let me end by a quotation from him.

“What do you think of yourself? What do you think of the world? … These are questions with which all must deal as it seems good to them. They are riddles of the Sphinx, and in some way or other we must deal with them.

“…In all important transactions of life we have to take a leap in the dark. … If we decide to leave the riddles unanswered, that is a choice; if we waver in our answer, that, too, is a choice: but whatever choice we make, we make it at our peril.

“If a man chooses to turn his back altogether on God and the future, no one can prevent him; no one can show beyond reasonable doubt that he is mistaken. If a man thinks otherwise and acts as he thinks, I do not see that any one can prove that he is mistaken. Each must act as he thinks best; and if he is wrong, so much the worse for him.

“We stand on a mountain pass in the midst of whirling snow and blinding mist through which we get glimpses now and then of paths which may be deceptive. If we stand still we shall be frozen to death. If we take the wrong road we shall be dashed to pieces. We do not certainly know whether there is any right one.

“What must we do? ‘ Be strong and of a good courage.’ Act for the best, hope for the best, and take what comes. … If death ends all, we cannot meet death better.”

american society, politics, religion

The Two Greatest Commandments

While trolling the internet, I came upon a rather pedestrian claim that in the coming election the liberals will try to “get God” as a way to convince Americans that there are issues more important than ending abortion and stopping gay marriage.

The claim is profoundly absurd, not least of all because by now most Americans are probably convinced that the “war on terror,” or at least Iraq, is more important than most any domestic policy issue. Further, any concern about domestic policy probably begins with a desire to assure–through many possible means–that Americans can afford health care.

The BibleBut as I was composing an answer that would be as close to flame-worthy as possible without actually burning me–a rather difficult task, but one I felt morally obligated to take on–I remembered something from Sunday School. The Two Greatest Commandments–which I’m sure some conservative pundits will be impressed to know, are not “Don’t allow women to have abortions” and “Don’t allow gays to have state-sanctioned marriages”–seemed to me to be one of the many important parts of Christianity that the vast majority of pundits are vainly hoping Christian Americans will forget.

The two greatest commandments, to the befuddlement of my eight-year-old self, are not among the Ten. They were not given to Moses, but come directly from Jesus. I’ve forgotten the exact circumstance in which this occurs, but here’s Matthew 22: 34-40 (NIV):

Hearing that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, the Pharisees got together. One of them, an expert in the law, tested him with this question:

“Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

Shocking indeed. Conclusive proof that if Jesus was not a liberal (which some argue “Love your neighbor as yourself” suggests), his chief concerns were at least larger than gay marriage and abortion.

And though someone will probably claim that this text is also a compelling argument for the establishment of a church that will become the government’s moral compass, I think the vast majority of this country knows that is unwise.

The two commandments are instead a reminder that all the parts of the Bible which are presently emphasized are less important than love for God and your fellow man. That love, not condemnation, was Jesus’ central message. That politicians claiming to represent a “Christian right” don’t recognize that fact, perhaps even willfully ignore that fact, should be a source of embarrassment and not a point of pride.

big ideas, politics, religion

The Problem of Heaven and Earth

This idea arose from something E. O. Wilson, the famous biologist, recently told Bill Moyers. He was essentially giving reasons that people, in this case Christians, use for not concerning themselves with the impact of human activity on the planet and other species. I hope I can lay out the argument with some clarity, separate from the rest of what Wilson was saying.

Few people would, a priori, think that there is any problem with Heaven. After all, if God rewards believers who live good lives with a trip there, it must be a good place. And though views vary about the nature of Heaven, a few facts about it can be fixed: it is eternal, it is better than life on earth, and it’s nature is not influenced by any factors on the planet.

This last point, that Heaven is not affected by life before death, needs some clarification. Certainly events that occur on Earth can have an impact on who is in Heaven, but they cannot change what the “eternal reward” of Heaven will be. That is: if I were to get in a fight, kill a man, or commit theft, that could certainly change my chances of being allowed into Heaven. But, beyond the few set actions that would bar me from entry, there is little in my life that will change the experience that is had after I entered, were I allowed to.

If you live in a giant house or a small house, drive a big car or a small car, cut down trees or plant them, none of this affects the nature of Heaven itself or your (eternal) time there. Whether you’re rich or poor, American or Polynesian, white or black, it doesn’t change you chances of getting into Heaven any more than it affects the likelihood of you sinning.

Because few of your earthly activities change your possibility of entry into Heaven, and because your time here is surely shorter than your time in Heaven, those who believe fervently in Heaven, and think they are going there, have little incentive to worry about Earth or its future.

The fact that there is little incentive for most Christians to worry about the future of the planet and the environment doesn’t stop them from doing so. More and more Christians are realizing the importance of protecting the planet. Richard Cizik, a vice-president at the National Association of Evangelicals has garnered a great deal of attention in the last few years for reorienting the groups mission to include “protecting God’s creation.”

Yet the problem of Heaven no doubt persists. There are still people, be them one or one million, who take little stock of what role their methods of living have here on Earth, worrying only about making it through their time here. Perhaps this is because they are thinking too much of their eternal reward to be much concerned about the present, or perhaps they simply don’t recognize their impact.

Obviously, the problem of conservation isn’t one fought merely against Christians who believe in Heaven, but they are an important factor. Surely atheists, Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, and Sikhs can also have a negative impact on the planet. But, their problems of conservation will have to wait for another time.

For now, I think anyone unconcerned about the future of the planet needs to take careful stock of why they don’t care, and ask if they really cannot. Further, I think those that are concerned about the future of the planet should think about what impact, positive and negative, they are having in their day-to-day life.

Surely Heaven is not the only reason people are willing to neglect the planet. Some strive to downplay their personal impact for political, economic, or social reasons. But I think religious reasons are an awfully poor reason to not be concerned about the impact of humans’ industrial and geographic expansion. Whether or not you believe in Heaven, it is a poor reason to willingly and carelessly sully the planet for future generations.

big ideas, politics, religion

Random Reincarnation

I’ve often felt that people are too quick to deny that others’ lives in other parts of the country or world affect their own. They find it easy to vote, think, and act in ways that are largely self-serving.

I can’t fault anyone for this, after all, I often do it myself. It’s exceptionally easy to think selfish thoughts. To think that you should have that really nice car or house. To think that the government should do what is best for people like you. That they should make your schools the best, your taxes the lowest, and your roads the smoothest.

But my own selfish thoughts do not stop me from seeing the problems with this way of thinking. This way of thinking can easily lead to a world in which the rich get richer, the haves have more, and they are willing and able to argue that everyone else just hasn’t worked hard enough.


I think that more people need to recognize that though their life may not be as good as they think it should be, it’s hardly as bad as it could be. If you are reading this online, you’re at least able to read English (arguably the most important language in the world) and afford access to the internet. If these two traits strike you as mundane, you’ve only proven the point.

And so I think we need to be aware of the possibility that there was no necessity to the way our lives have turned out. We’ve merely won the “genetic lottery” as the Oracle of Omaha (that’s Warren Buffet) is fond of saying.

If you can find Buffet’s “genetic lottery” argument plausible, it can have a great effect on your worldview. If you could have just as well been born in a refugee camp in Africa or as a displaced Palestinian in Jordan, your willingness to accept the status quo would change immensely. For one, the fact that millions of people die annually from diseases that we have the ability to treat and prevent becomes a great injustice rather than the way the world works.

But some people seem willfully ignorant of this fact, willing to say that there is good reason that they’re a well-off white American. So I came up with a plan.

I will start a religion whose chief doctrine is reincarnation. Not traditional karmic reincarnation though. This would have to be completely random. Sometime after your death in some random place and time, you will be reborn.

That way, all the strangers whose life isn’t as comfortable as your own won’t be abstract people, they’ll be you. Not the present you, but the past and future you.

Will this unnamed religion ever succeed? I should doubt it. After all, I don’t have the charisma or the nerve to sell people on a concept I simply made up. And I doubt that those who I feel most need this religion would willingly convert.

But that won’t stop me from suggesting it. From asking people to at least consider the possibility.

american society, religion, ruminations

On Missionaries, Religion, and the Police

This Saturday, two white men in white shirts with holy books in their hands rang my doorbell. I didn’t answer.

I assumed, for lack of a better explanation, that they were missionaries. I wasn’t expecting anyone to ring, and these certainly weren’t men I knew.

At first I thought nothing of not answering. Then I felt bad for having done this. And then, I thought about it some more and decided I had no reason to feel bad for my actions.

My rationalization was this: these men probably had one goal in mind: to share God’s love with me. Maybe they’d just want to tell me who they were, why they were at my door, and how to get to the nearest place of worship if I ever felt the need. That’s the best I can think that it would have gone.

Possibly they’d offer me a book. One that said The Holy Bible on the front. Maybe it would be a Book of Mormon. I can’t tell what their denomination was, having not spoken with them.

Maybe they’d want me to tell them about my relationship with God. Talk about prying!?

But it also made me curious about what they wouldn’t say. They probably wouldn’t have said, “Hello, I’d like to have an earnest discussion with you about God and spirituality.”

Even less likely, they could have asked what I thought of their religion. Why I though that. And then corrected any misconceptions I had and gone on their way.

I find it interesting that never having willingly undertaken this interaction I already think I know how it would go. I also can’t shake the feeling of disappointment that I may well be right.

Wouldn’t it be a trip to have a man knock on your door and, when you open it, say, “Hello, I was wondering what you could teach me. I think you can teach me something, what’ll it be?”

But even as I say that, I recognize another fact. That after that man rang the doorbell, I’d probably call the police.

american society, religion, review

Review: Jesus Camp

Jesus Camp is a documentary that examines the Evangelical movement in the United States. It does this by following a few Evangelicals (I believe they’re mostly Pentecostal) for a time. And on the whole, it does a fairly even-handed job of this, not seeming to judge its subjects, merely to present them.

This may be because the directors felt no need; the film’s chief evangelist (Becky Fischer) is herself somewhat reactionary and off-putting. Her essential claim, stated very early in the film, is that America’s children need to mobilized for Jesus because Muslims around the world are fervently converting their children and arming them for a coming conflict.

To overtly critique the film’s subject, the directors have relied on a single liberal Christian radio talk show host, shown making his own show about the dangers of the evangelical movement and his view that it’s essentially missing the message of Christ.

Visually, the film is very stark. But the subjects are generally lively enough to compensate. The most important players in the drama are children: there’s Levi, 12, who is aspiring to be a preacher. Rachel, 9, who feels moved to tell a twenty-something in a bowling ally that God loves her and is thinking of her, is also particularly memorable.

Overall, the movie paints a pretty useful, if somewhat frightening, portrait of the movement. It seems to gloss over certain aspects of motives and aspirations. The characters feel slightly underdeveloped, all getting enough time on camera, but none really probed or examined in any meaningful way. That is, we see these kids at church and at camp, but with little explanation of their motives for being there.

None the less, we are given a good look at what does occur at such camps. In one striking example, Becky Fischer tells weeping young children that there are fakers among them, and that they need to admit and cease their lying because “there can be no fakers in God’s army.”

This scene and others raise some interesting questions about the most radical elements of the movement. Levi, in some ways the film’s star, is home schooled by his mother in the ways of Creationist science. His book asks him, a middle-school aged child, to explain how global warming is clearly not a real problem.

Perhaps more jarring, is the scene in which a man speaks to the children at camp about abortion. I was shocked, not least of all because most of the children at this camp were between the ages of 8 and 13. This left the man on shaky ground, teaching children who probably don’t even know the biology of reproduction what abortion is and how it is bad.

Regardless of all of this, I couldn’t stop wondering about the future of these people. Repeatedly throughout the film, adults are telling these children that they are the most important generation, and that they can win back America for God. Most of the children shown seem enthused with this idea. I was left wondering how many of the children at this camp actually felt that way. How long those shown would continue to feel that way. Would they all, if revisited in 5 or 10 years time, still be a fervent in their beliefs, or would some become cynical.

Regardless of these questions, there is no denying that Jesus Camp tells some compelling stories, and in a fairly even-handed way. If you’re curious about evangelism (especially its extremes), Jesus Camp makes a good introduction.