Crucifixion, Liberation, and the Depression

Good Friday. Christians everywhere are commemorating the execution of an ancient Middle Eastern sect leader by an imperial power. History is just so strange. I love wandering into old churches. Often the weirdest part of the experience is coming across a painted effigy of Christ, covered with blood, perforated with gaping wounds, and exuding a kind of patient agony. Its certainly tempting to conclude that an iconography of such sadism is the sign of some disease gripping the mind.

However, there is an interesting link here with more thoughtful world views, such as Buddhism. The link is the liberation from suffering. Both Christianity and Buddhism start from the assumption that the default state of humanity is one of suffering and struggle – the suffering of poverty and starvation, the struggle to protect your family against war and theft, the fear of illness and death, the pain of loss. As I understand it, Christ suffers for us; we get swallowed up in his love, and he swallows up our pain and suffering. In Buddhism, the point is to somehow see past these things – there is no self no suffer, and suffering is caused by grasping too hard at the world. Buddhism is not primarily a set of beliefs, but rather a path of liberation. (For the sake of argument, please ignore the bizarre magical side of Tibetan Buddhism…)

It always seemed to me that Buddhism ought to be a more natural religion for America than Christianity. In Christianity, we are rescued by a magical being in whom we must trust. In Buddhism, we must rescue ourselves, by insight.

Of course in the modern oil rich affluent world, there is simply much less suffering. (Although it doesn’t look that way in Gaza or Mumbai..) I have always assumed that increasing affluence was the reason why religion is gradually decaying, at least in Europe. But if capitalism collapses around us, watch out for millions of suffering people looking for ways to escape from misery..

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27 Responses to Crucifixion, Liberation, and the Depression

  1. Ross Collins says:

    My local (evangelical) church are clearly thinking along the same lines as your last comment. This is the poster they’ve got on display right now:

    http://gadgetvicar.typepad.com/gadgetvicar/2009/04/holy-week-easter-st-silas.html

  2. telescoper says:

    It is said that in a recession people always go back to the Church. That is why ours has no lead on the roof.

  3. Hi Andy,

    Good thoughtful reading for the long weekend.

    The thing that – for me – makes it difficult to swallow Buddhism (or atheism) when it comes to suffering and the self is that it seems to deny what I strongly believe by nature – and what Christianity allows me to affirm.

    So, on suffering, I genuinely believe that there is something seriously wrong with the world – that things are not as they ought to be. But in Buddhist (or atheistic) thinking, I have no basis for making that statement – that’s just the way things are, and I’d better learn to live with it.

    Then, on the self, I find myself believing that I have much more significance than ten gallons of water, enough fat to make seven bars of soap, and whatever else I’m made of. But Buddhism seems to invite me to look beyond “me” and lose myself in some great sea of oneness (or nothingness). (If I’ve understood it correctly!)

    Perhaps this is part of the reason why Buddhism hasn’t taken off very strongly in America? Once you’ve moved beyond the problem of suffering and from thinking that you have any distinctive significance, there doesn’t seem to be much motivation for enterprise and achievement, which seem so central to the American psyche?

  4. telescoper says:

    Is the problem of suffering resolved any more easily with the Christian faith? God, if he’s omnipotent, could bring an end to suffering but not only chooses not to do this but evidently also encourages his believers to carry out acts that increase it.

    I’m agnostic when it comes to the existence of God, but even if He does exist I find absolutely no reason to worship a creep like that.

  5. Tony says:

    All religion is patent nonsense – how any moderately intelligent being can buy into any of it is quite beyond me. But then, I also think that depression is the natural state of mind of any sentient biological being: if evolution had not come up with a way to flood humans’ minds with happy juice we would have died out by mass suicide long ago. Christianity is just another form of self-delusion, memetic rather than biological.

  6. andyxl says:

    Darwinian explanation for religion anyone ? By the way, I didn’t mean to imply I was a Buddhist. Its just interesting. I don’t like the word “atheist” either, as that seems both unecessarily antagonistic, and too accepting of the starting point. I see myself as a nontheist. The answer to the question “is there a God” is “that’s not really a question”.

    Anthony has a point of course that Buddhism (a little bit) and Hinduism (a lot) have a tendency to make people accept their lot. But historically, until the Reformation, Christianity did the same thing. I suspect this is not to do with philosophical or theological positions at all – its just to do with the strength of the priesthood.

  7. Michael Merrifield says:

    That’s a cop-out Andy, akin to claiming that “is that music beautiful?” is a non-question just because it isn’t conducive to a simple scientific analysis. Not really of a religious bent myself, but equally I am unwilling to simply dismiss as a non-issue the sincerely-held beliefs of billions of people, many of whom are a lot smarter than me.

  8. andyxl says:

    Didn’t make myself clear. Its not an avoidance; I see it as a stronger statement. I see the question “Does God Exist ?” as pretty much like “When did you stop beating your wife ?”

    This doesn’t mean religion can’t be subject to scientific enquiry. As an observed phenomenon, religious experience and behaviour is clearly of enormous importance.

    Also it doesn’t mean spiritual questions are of no interest, as you can probably tell from several posts of mine; just that the words “Does God Exist ?” come loaded with baggage. Is there really a Yahweh like sky god, father figure with beard, personal god who tells us what to do ? Of course not. So is religion just a random brain virus, with no root in something meaningful. Of course not.

  9. andyxl says:

    Anthony – by the way, I don’t think Buddhism (or atheism) has ever said that you are only ten gallons of water, or that you have no distinctive significance. Buddhism only says that the self is not a permanent, persistent thing; there is no soul. The self dissolves at the same time as the body. But while we are alive, we are complex, beautiful, and worthwhile. When we die that beauty and value continues elsewhere. If you can understand before you die, you will be much happier. It shouldn’t stop you fighting for your rights etc, as far as I can see.

    Of course what I can never follow is how Buddhism can square the idea of re-incarnation with the non-existence of the soul. As far as I can tell, it inherited an assumption of re-incarnation from Hinduism, and radical though Buddhism was, it wasn’t quite brave/radical enough to follow that logic through. I would welcome any tame Buddhists who might want to explain if I have this wrong.

  10. Tony says:

    Given that most religions posit a god as some omni-xxx-ent entity which can observe and influence the minutiae of the universe (especially that part that happens in bedrooms), then the answer to the question “Does god X exist?” is clearly No. But answering that question so makes one a rationalist: I agree that ‘atheist’ comes loaded with baggage, viz that there might be something not to believe in. I’m quite happy to be antagonistic and would describe myself as anti-religionist, since religions do exist and, IMO, are a force for evil in the world.

  11. Michael Merrifield says:

    Wouldn’t you say that was a little simple-minded, Tony? Religion is also the motivation behind acts of great goodness, not to mention some of the most beautiful art ever produced.

  12. Tony says:

    I’d say that the great art comes from within the person, Mike. They may have seen the world through the delusion of religion just as Van Gogh saw it through his own delusions: without religion or with any other religion those artists would still have produced great art. Religions have nothing to do with art: they are about gaining power over people by fear and thereby denying them the right to think and I consider that a great evil. Ordinary people may do good things in the name of their delusion but organised religion as a whole has only ever been responsible for evil.

  13. Tony says:

    But do I think the world would instantly become a happy place without religion? No. People would find some other delusion to justify what they do. Religion, after all, is created by people and people need and want their delusions.

  14. Kav says:

    Tony, surely if great art comes from within the person then so does capacity for good or evil? Saying that religion is a force for evil is a cop out.

    In fact your last post eviscerates the idea that religion is a force for evil by pointing out that people would find some other delusion if it did not exist.

    Religion, as practiced, is neither a force for good nor evil, its the people who do things in the name of said religions that are the force.

    Similarly Telescoper bemoans the fact that if a god does exist he (or she or it) is a creep because he lets suffering continue. I infer from this that he is a fan of the nanny state. Free will is so over-rated. 😉

  15. Andy – you may well be right about Buddhism. But the impression I’ve been getting (from sources such as this talk by a former Zen Buddhist monk) is that enlightenment is largely about escaping from the illusion of diversity and recognizing the oneness of all things. Perhaps I do have great significance as part of this grand unity – but then ten gallons of water probably has great significance as well? Dunno.

    But what about atheism – what’s the basis for saying I’m more significant than ten gallons of water etc.?

  16. Tony says:

    Kav, religions are based on the idea that they have the one truth and their believers are the only ones who are worth saving by their god, implying (and often stating) that disbelievers, recusants and the like are less than human, so making evil actions against those people perfectly acceptable, even if the religious leaders condemn the action afterwards. Any idea that ‘others’ are worth less than ‘us’ is ultimately going to be conducive to evil actions against the ‘others’. Saying that religion is okay because only people can do evil is the cop-out. And just because some people will latch onto another delusion if you puncture their current one does not mean you should stop pointing out that they are delusions and dangerous at that.

    And the existence of suffering has nothing to do with free will: no-one wills earthquakes or tsunamis but they do cause great suffering and it is this suffering that disproves a benevolent god. (See many of Stephen Law’s blogs. Maybe start with Eth: http://stephenlaw.blogspot.com/2007/03/god-of-eth.html )

  17. physicist says:

    Listening to physicists talk about religion is as frustrating as listening to religous people talk about physics. Andy, please get back to subjects your followers know something about.

  18. Kav says:

    I’m not saying that you should stop pointing out they are delusions, my point is that you tar all with one brush with the blanket statement that religion is a force for evil. Religion is a human construct and people act within that construct using religion to justify their acts. This cuts both ways since some people use religion as the reason for the good they do just as others use it for the bad. Thus it still comes down to people.

    You offer a strawman; I never said that religion is OK, I just challenged your assertion that it is a force for evil.

    I also would argue with your blanket statement that religions encourage people to think of others as less than human. All religions? I agree that they more often than not provide a mindset for abusing others not of the faith but to claim that they all dehumanise non-believers is a reach.

    I have problems with saying that a construct is evil rather than those who create or hold-up the construct.

    My point about free will was not suggesting that all suffering happens because of people. I’m surprised you thought that. Telescoper said that god ‘evidently also encourages his believers to carry out acts that increase it.’ which is an interesting assertion but an argument for another day, thus leading into talking about human induced suffering. If god were to attempt to end that it would mean the end of conscious choice of the individual.

  19. andyxl says:

    I am reminded of the US gun law debate. NRA supporters stated displaying bumper stickers that said “Guns don’t kill people; people kill people”. The anti-gun lobby responded with stickers that said “People with guns kill people”

  20. The Depression? What depression? It’s a recession.

  21. Tony says:

    “I have problems with saying that a construct is evil rather than those who create or hold-up the construct.”

    That’s a point of view but you’d have to say the same about, say, Nazism, Stalinism etc. Hitler may have made the trains run on time but there is so much wrong with Nazism that I’m happy to call it evil. Same with religion. Religions are bleating now that people are starting to attack them, forcing their delusions into the light and the fluffy brigade think we should all just let them be (http://bit.ly/4hDPfy) But religion is wrong, logically and morally: let the assault continue.

  22. Kav says:

    See my problem with that comment is that it sounds as if you are saying that religious people are worth less than you (because of course, religions aren’t ‘bleating’ anything, whereas religious people might be). Made me think of this:

    “religions are based on the idea that they have the one truth and their believers are the only ones who are worth saving by their god, implying (and often stating) that disbelievers, recusants and the like are less than human, so making evil actions against those people perfectly acceptable, even if the religious leaders condemn the action afterwards.”

  23. Kav says:

    That said, if religion (of whatever stripe) cannot withstand rhetorical, logical or moral assault then its clearly not worth its salt.

  24. Tony says:

    Shall we leave it with us agreeing on that point, Kav?

  25. Martin E. says:

    I *never* saw a bumper sticker saying “People with Guns Kill People”, even in uber-liberal Cambridge Mass. Urban myth?

    ps how do i find Tony’s blog?

  26. andyxl says:

    Rats. Is it too late to make some ? Re Tony’s blog : another urban myth I think

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