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Archive for April, 2009

Do you know which university is opening a new “Dalai Lama Center for Ethics and Transformative Values”?

Maharishi University of Management is the obvious pick, but that’s not it. And it’s also not Lhasa University (Go Fighting Sherpas!), although that’s a great guess too. Nor is it Buddha College, Western Karma, or the Gelug School.

In fact, it’s MIT:

With the launch of the Dalai Lama center, MIT is breaking new ground in the world of academic science: no other major science research institution in the U.S. has a center named for a contemporary religious leader.

Might this conflict with its mission of teaching about, well, science and technology? Not according to the scientific authorities at the Santa Barbara Institute for Consciousness Studies:

“Buddhism has no history of conflict with science,” says B. Alan Wallace, president of the Santa Barbara Institute for Consciousness Studies in Santa Barbara, Calif. “In that regard, it may seem non-threatening to certain scientists who’ve grown very wary of Christians, who they think always have an agenda to try to plug intelligent design or their own particular theological creed.”

If Buddhism has no history of conflict with science, it’s only because science considers Buddhism too ludicrous to pay attention to.

Here are a few things Buddhists believe in:

  • Saṃsāra, a continual cycle of death and re-birth that can only be escaped through “enlightenment“.
  • Karma, the notion that good and bad actions produce “seeds” in the mind which come to fruition either in this life or in a subsequent rebirth.
  • Prophecy
  • Guardian Gods who watch over the four cardinal directions
  • A wrathful God of the Dead

I may not have been clever enough to go to MIT, but I am pretty sure that most of those things conflict with “science,” which (for instance) has never managed to find “seeds” in the mind, and whose Michelson-Morley experiment provided strong evidence against the existence of “karma.”

What’s more, the center’s namesake is believed by Buddhists to be the “reincarnation” of his predecessors. When he dies, his Buddhist buddies will go to a “holy” lake and watch for signs indicating to them which toddler’s going to be the next Lama, at which point they’ll kidnap him and haul him off to a monastery, where they can fill his head with all sorts of nonsense about rebirth and samsara and karma and dharma and shawarma.

Oh, and also he thinks gay sex is wrong:

Although he is known for his tolerant, humane views, he is a surprisingly harsh critic of homosexuality. If you are a Buddhist, he says, it is wrong. “Full stop.

No way round it.

“A gay couple came to see me, seeking my support and blessing. I had to explain our teachings. Another lady introduced another woman as her wife – astonishing. It is the same with a husband and wife using certain sexual practices. Using the other two holes is wrong.”

[…]

“A Western friend asked me what harm could there be between consenting adults having oral sex, if they enjoyed it,” the Dalai Lama continues, warming to his theme. “But the purpose of sex is reproduction, according to Buddhism. The other holes don’t create life.

Why, that doesn’t sound like a “theological creed” at all!

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Does prayer do anything? Like, if you came down with the swine flu mexican flu H1N1, and you didn’t feel like rooting it out at the causal level, would it be worth your while to force your friends to pray for your cure?

The evidence, naturally, says, “no, of course that doesn’t work, what kind of stone-age moron are you to even consider such a possibility?”

And if you’re a religious person, you’re probably scrambling to reconcile this predictable failure with your belief in an all-powerful, all-caring god. Luckily, Kingdom of Priests has the answer:

does anyone who’s a traditional theist of a Biblical variety seriously think that God would consent to be tested this way? I assume that prayer does work. However, doesn’t the Hebrew Bible warn pretty strenuously against testing God?

[…]

But testing God by praying for sick people, coolly tallying up the results to be reported in a science journal and then in the media? It’s just impossible to believe, given what we know about Him from the Bible, that God would go along with that.

In other words, praying works (because David Klinghoffer “assumes” so), except when you actually check to see if it works (because the Bible says god doesn’t like it when you check to see if he gets results).

“I assume it works, but it definitely won’t work if you test it” is an awesomely low bar to set for proof. (Although I should probably be more sympathetic, on account of it being the same reasoning I used in 7th grade to convince people that my hypercolor t-shirts gave me the power to fly.)

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US News and World Report has put together a special feature on the “10 Most Important Obama Faith Moments.” Of course they picked stupid ones like “Having Rick Warren pray at the inauguration” and “Luring Tony Dungy away from football to join the Faith Advisory Council” and “Smearing holy dirt on Joe Biden’s forehead.” Bo-ring!

Submitted for your approval, here are my top ten Obama faith moments:

10. Healed a leper at town hall meeting in Berea, Ohio.
9. Drove evil spirits out of Lincoln Bedroom.
8. Using the tax dollars of only a few wealthy Americans, miraculous transferred large sums of money to his cronies at AIG.
7. Cursed John McCain, who withered. (Although he was pretty withered to start with.)
6. Cured a paralytic by restoring federal funding of stem cell research.
5. Descended into hell .
4. Arranged to feed (and make mortgage payments for) the multitude.
3. Calmed the storm in the stock market.
2. Miraculous conversion of Arlen Specter.
1. Raised Larry Summers from the dead.

Did I forget any?

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I bet some of you are worried about the Swine Flu. Maybe you’re carrying around an industrial-sized bottle of Purell so you can spray down Amma before she hugs you. Maybe you’re wearing a surgical mask to keep the germs out of your nose and mouth. Or maybe you’re postponing that pork-tasting tour of Mexico that your kids bought you for your anniversary.

Well, according to Beliefnet, you’ve got it all wrong:

According to [famed epidemiological expert] Martin Luther King, Jr. there is a power in us more powerful than the power of bullets.

Is it The Power of Love? The Power of Greyskull? The Power of Orange Knickers? Not even close.

King knew that that power was the power of the Spirit. Call it a religious power, a spiritual power, the power of consciousness or whatever – it has to do with the power of the mind, joined with the power of a Divine Creator.

So don’t be fooled when it comes to this conversation about the swine flu. This flu wasn’t created on the level of the body, because no disease is. It was created on the level of the mind, and it is there that we will root it out at the causal level.

Forget about Tamiflu, believers. Forget about Relenza, about Symmetrel, about Flumadine, and about vaccination. Forget about washing your hands, about not sharing Kleenex, about trying to sneeze into your sleeve, and about curtailing your spitting. Those work on the level of the body. Those only address the “symptoms” and the “root causes” and the “viruses that transmit the flu from one person to the next”.

But what about the “internal planes”? The “Mexico is dangerous” thoughts with which we’ve been psychically burdening our neighbors to the south? The lack of gratitude we’ve been showing the Cosmos? The intuitive synchronicities we’ve been ignoring? OUR LACK OF ALIGNMENT WITH THE UNIVERSE? THE DISCONNECTS BETWEEN US AND WHAT WE MANIFEST? THE UNDERAPPRECIATED INTERACTIONS BETWEEN QUANTUM PARTICLES AND THE PRINCIPLES OF FENG SHUI? THE SPIRITUAL MESSAGES FROM OUR ANCESTORS THAT WE’VE BEEN NEGLECTING? OUR RANK AND UTTER NEGLECT AND IGNORANCE OF ANCIENT WISDOM? OUR FUTILE OBSESSION WITH THINGS LIKE SCIENCE and MEDICINE and EVIDENCE and COMMON SENSE and NOT BELIEVING IN NEW AGE CRAP?

We’re all going to die.

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Why do people leave their religions? It’s easy to come up with a number of hypotheses:

  • like to sleep in on Sundays
  • hard to believe that a “benevolent” god would let FOX cancel “Firefly”
  • tastiness of bacon
  • wanted to try this “dancing” thing everyone is talking about
  • “Thou shalt not kill” cramping social life
  • tired of being reincarnated as a bald man
  • church services “too preachy”
  • to pursue career as abortionist
  • difficult to find flattering burqa
  • falseness

And yet the Pew Forum seems to have included almost none of these as options in their Faith in Flux survey, instead providing less useful choices like “Spiritual needs not being met” and “Clergy sexual abuse scandal” and “Moved to a new community” and “Someone they were close to passed away.”

Although none of these choices make much sense, the last probably makes the least sense. Who leaves a religion because someone close to them dies?

I mean, maybe if you’re a Snake Handler, and your husband actually dies as part of the religious services, or if you’re a Scientologist, and your daughter dies as part of an Introspection Rundown, or if you’re a Kinshasan Revivalist, and your brother drowns during his baptism. Then I can sort of understand.

But very few religions promise that they’ll stop you from dying. That would be absurd! The most they typically offer is that you’ll get to spend an eternity after you die in the loving embrace of the invisible sky-man, while your less-pious friends and neighbors are being dunked in a lake of fire and eternally tormented by Asmodeus, Overlord of the Dukes of Hell, whose symbols include a clawed fist gripping a skull and a ruby-tipped rod, and who survived the Reckoning of Hell to become undisputed leader of the Nine Hells. I’m sorry, but if you’d give all that up just because of some “sex abuse scandal,” then you’ve got bigger problems than “spirituality.”

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If you have a Google News Alert for “LifeWay Christian Resources, the Southern Baptist Convention’s publishing arm” like I do, you probably saw the large number of articles describing how sales of new baptisms slipped again in 2008. (I was unable to find any good statistics on sales of pre-owned baptisms.)

And if you are a scholar of religion like I am, you probably ran to their website so you could download the data and play with it in Excel. You probably also hunted down some UCR data on crime. You probably started searching for correlations. And you were probably surprised to discover that higher Baptism rates mean higher murder rates!

murder_v_baptism

Now, whenever we discover a relationship like this, we need to be careful. In general, correlation does not imply causation. There are certainly other options available for explaining this relationship:

1. Reverse Causation

If you flip the graph, you could construct the alternative hypothesis “murder causes baptism”. However, dead people cannot be baptised (unless you are a Mormon, which most Southern Baptists are not). QED.

2. Third factor causes both

Maybe Global Warming is responsible. After all, when it’s hotter, the blood gets angry. And also when it’s hotter, the cool dip of a baptism seems more appealing. Some NASA data should clear things up:

global_temp_index1

Looks like that doesn’t work either.

3. Coincidence

If this weren’t a religious phenomenon, we could chalk it up to “coincidence”. However, as everyone knows, a coincidence is just “god’s way of remaining anonymous” (as opposed to everything else he does to remain anonymous, like being invisible and silent and imaginary). In the land of religion, there are no coincidences!

4. Both cause each other

Maybe there’s some sort of physical law linking both, like “Joel’s Law of Murder and Baptism”: M = sB + G, where s represents sunspots, and G represents god’s wrath. If this were the case, increasing the murder rate would necessarily increase baptisms too.


Clearly there is room for further research here. Nonetheless, my preliminary Sunday-morning social science makes one thing clear: Baptism kills!

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Randal Rauser is an associate professor of historical theology at Taylor Seminary, Edmonton. One day he bought a Bible for his seven-year-old daughter, and was shocked — SHOCKED — to discover that it was full of god-mandated genocides:

The page with Deuteronomy 20 features a factoid bubble with a green parrot which informs me that Israelite men could be exempted from having to fight if they had been newly married, had recently built a home, or were just plain scared. That’s sort of interesting. But I know that my daughter will ask not about who didn’t have to fight, but rather why those who did fight killed babies and children. After looking through the slickly produced “Adventure Bible” I’m still waiting for an answer.

If only Randal knew some sort of “professor of theology” he could ask. I’m no theologian, but I can take a shot.

There are in fact several theories designed to explain how a “loving” god could countenance genocide. Here are a handful of the most popular:

  • At that point in time was still getting a feel for the job
  • Tired of getting shot down as “too benevolent” by women in bars
  • Developed insatiable blood-lust after drowning most of humanity
  • Insisted that mass-killings be done as “lovingly” as possible
  • “Wow, it took you until you were an adult force-feeding this garbage to your child for you to start asking questions like this?”
  • Influenced by popularity of movie All Genocidees Go To Heaven
  • Bible mistranslated; actually tried to stop genocide
  • Genocide was actually OK until Jesus came and changed the rules
  • Original version of commandment “Thou Shalt Not Kill” contained “just kidding!”
  • “Don’t ask so many questions, or we’ll genocide you too!”
  • Bible fiction; god imaginary; religion false

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