August 23, 2009

Alaska's Prayer Cards

I've been doing a fair amount of flying on Alaska Airlines this year, and so have seen their "prayer cards" on many occasions. Prayer cards are included with meals and are printed with Biblical quotations, such as:

I will be glad and rejoice in you;
I will sing praise to your name
O most high.
I will praise God's name in song
and glorify Him with thanksgiving.
PSALM 69:30
Over the years, various people and groups have raised the issue of whether Alaska's prayer cards are appropriate (see here and here). Salon devoted an article to the topic, defending Alaska's right to distribute the cards while taking exception with their official corporate response to complaints, which links "Judeo-Christian beliefs" with the US government.

I generally agree with Salon's analysis, but a couple of points:

First, it seems to me that Alaska is missing an opportunity to draw from a much larger body of religion than simply the Old Testament of the Bible (if they have used verses from the New Testament, I haven't seen them). Other religious texts have words of wisdom, and anything that helps educate people on the broad spectrum of beliefs in the world, hopefully leading to more tolerance, can only be a good thing. For example, this from the Talmud:

Whoever destroys a soul, it is considered as if he destroyed an entire world. And whoever saves a life, it is considered as if he saved an entire world.
Or this from the Koran:
God helps those who persevere.
Or this saying attributed to Buddha:
Believe nothing, no matter where you read it, or who said it, no matter if I have said it, unless it agrees with your own reason and your own common sense.
Second, assuming that Alaska is going to use only Christian Biblical quotes, why are the two I could find online (I don't save them) all about praising God?

Perhaps this is the agnostic in me, but I've never understood the obsession in some religious texts with singing the praises of one's chosen divine being. (Doing research for this article, it seemed like most of the quotes I found from the Koran were about the importance of prayer.) Contrast this with the quote from Buddha above, encouraging skepticism, including of himself.

In any case, if you're going to choose to draw from the Bible, how about this from 1 John 4:18:

There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.
Or this from Proverbs 12:16:
A fool shows his annoyance at once, but a prudent man overlooks an insult.
Or this from Acts 20:35:
It is more blessed to give than receive.

June 06, 2007

Druyan on Sagan and Agnosticism

In the current issue of Skeptic magazine (unavailable online), which is partly devoted to the legacy of Carl Sagan on the 10th anniversary of his death, Michael Shermer interviews Sagan's widow and collaborator, Ann Druyan. Reading the interview reminded me of how much Sagan's presence in the world is missed, and of how I probably owe at least some portion of my philosophy on religion to his influence:

SKEPTIC: I want to get down to where the rubber meets the road in the ontological question of god's existence. What did Carl call himself -- atheist, agnostic, non-theist...?

DRUYAN: Carl really was an agnostic, truly. He felt that people who say that they know how the universe came to be, who made it or didn't make it, are kind of foolish in a way, whether they are believers or atheists. Carl believed that in a universe that is so vast, and for a species as young and ignorant as we are, the only reasonable position to take on these ultimate questions is agnosticism.

SKEPTIC: What most people mean by "atheist" is "belief that there is no God," whereas agnostic means that we just don't know?

DRUYAN: Literally yes, we do not know. Not that we can't know, but at the moment in the present state we know so little about the universe. We've only been at this exploration of the universe in any sort of systematic way for what, four centuries? That's such a tiny fraction of history. Carl would say "we just don't know," and the more we acknowledge how much we don't know, the less chance we have of assuming things that turn out not to be true.


SKEPTIC: It seemed like Carl -- and you as his collaborator -- make a point of being extra polite and thoughtful with those who are religious. Is this conciliatory approach just a political strategy, just making nice so that we can all get along?

DRUYAN: No, it is respect. It is remembering how many times all of us have been wrong. I think that attitude is at the heart of the methodology of science. There is nothing patronizing at all in this approach; it is simply respect. And this approach comes from life experience. I am 57, and I have been wrong plenty of times. Every time I think that I know everything, somebody demonstrates how completely deluded I am. And this is what is so great about the scientific method: it has that built-in error correcting mechanism that is always reminding you, "You could be wrong."

A few weeks ago, I wrote of Douglas Adams:

He... had an ongoing interest in the intersection of science and religion, and was speaking on that subject as well. It's particularly sad to me that we lost his voice in that particular discussion, because it's so difficult for me to imagine anyone being truly angry with Douglas. How can you hate someone who's making you laugh? It would be a great balance to the thoughtful but serious Richard Dawkinses, Sam Harrises, and their like to have Douglas around, disarmingly poking holes in religion without truly offending anyone.
And it's sad to me that we lost Sagan, too, for similar reasons: he could poke holes in religion (and did so about as well as anyone) while nevertheless respecting its practitioners. And how could you hate someone who sincerely respects you and your beliefs?

April 05, 2007

The Kora of Mount Kailash

When I wrote this entry about seeing The Police in concert this summer, I wrote that I had 119 goals in life, with 26 down, leaving 93 to go. Make that 122 goals, 26 down, and 96 to go -- I forgot visiting Nepal, visiting Tibet, and making the kora around Mount Kailash.

Mount Kailash is a holy site for multiple religions, including Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, and Bön. All these religions hold that circumambulating (circling on foot) Kailash, known as the kora, has special significance. Buddhists believe that making one kora washes away the sins of a lifetime. (They also believe that 108 kora confer instant nirvana.)

The summit of Kailash is 6,638 meters. The various religions that revere Kailash believe that to climb to its peak would be sacreligious, and it's not clear whether this has ever been done. The highest point of the kora is a pass at 5,630 meters. There is an inner kora that leads to a special pilgrimage site at 6,096 meters, Serdung Chuksum, the Cave of the Thirteen Golden Chortens. By tradition, this inner kora cannot be attempted unless one has made 13 kora (also known as the outer kora).

Luckily for those of us with busy schedules, there's a Buddhist Monopoly "get out of jail free" card. Every 12 years, during the Year of the Horse, one outer kora counts for 13, so one trip around Kailash and you get to attempt the inner kora. (There's an excerpt from a good National Geographic Adventure article on the topic here.)

According to the Chinese astrological calendar, the next Year of the Horse runs 31 January 2014 to 18 February 2015. I don't know if I'll be capable of attempting the inner kora -- even the outer kora is said to be extremely difficult. But if one were planning on going, going during the Year of the Horse would at least give the option of attempting the inner kora -- and how many people in the world can say they've been to Serdung Chuksum?

The obvious question in all this is "why?" I've long considered myself agnostic, though truth be told, I'm closer to atheism than agnosticism. If I don't believe in Buddhism, or nirvana, why make the kora? The answer for me is that I can appreciate the symbolism of a religion without accepting its core beliefs. It's why I ritually cleanse myself before entering a Shinto shrine in Japan (link here, scroll to the bottom of the page). And while I may not believe in the supernatural aspects of any religion, I have particular respect for Buddhism as a philosophy. One doesn't have to be mystical to see the principle of karma at work every single day.

So I'll go to Tibet, make the journey to Kailash, and attempt the outer kora. If I make it, I may go on to try the inner kora. And while I won't literally believe that the sins of my lifetime are being washed away, I'll appreciate the symbolism of it all. I'll admire the faithful who make the kora without North Face jackets, without Vasque boots, without LaraBars or Jetboils or Katadyns. I'll be amazed by the faithful who make the entire journey prostrate, crawling their way around their holiest peak. And I'll come back a different person.

In what way I'll come back different, I have no idea.

April 14, 2006

The Carolina-Virginia of Religion

I promise this will be my last blog entry on maps of religion in the US for a while... but bear with me.

A little over a year ago, I wrote a blog entry in which I looked at a map showing the distribution of popular names for soft drinks throughout the US. Here's the main map (blues are "pop", reds are "coke", yellows are "soda"):

Generic Names for Soft Drinks

What I found most interesting was that, though popular names tended to be fairly uniform throughout the country, in one region -- from northern South Carolina through to North Carolina and Virginia -- name preferences were highly variable:

Soft Drink Names in Carolina and Virginia

Going back to my previous entry showing the distribution of the leading church bodies throughout the US, as with names for soft drinks, church adherence tends to be reasonably uniform within geographical areas. However, if we zoom in on Indiana and Ohio, we see something very similar to the phenomenon of soft drink names in the Carolina-Virginia corridor (light blue is Catholic, green is Methodist, yellow is Christian, red is Baptist, gold is Lutheran, pink is Mennonite):

US Religion: Indiana and Ohio

What causes this phenomenon, whether in religion, soft drink names, or anything else? When most of the country is uniform in its preferences, what causes a particular region to be so highly variable?

April 13, 2006

Oh, So There's the Bible Belt

In my previous entry, I wrote:

What I find interesting about this map is how the Bible Belt doesn't seem to exist the way I would have thought it did. I suppose I imagined it as starting in Texas and Oklahoma, with a tip up in Missouri, down through all the Southeastern states. It isn't that at all.
This map is of leading church bodies, also by county:

US Religion: Church Bodies

Oh, so there's the Bible Belt -- the red area dominated by Baptists. It's mostly as I envisioned it, though I hadn't thought it would stop in mid-south Texas, in southern Louisiana, or at the Florida panhandle, nor had I thought it would extend so far into Kentucky, West Virginia (except for its panhandle), or Virginia -- but thinking about the cultures of these states, it all makes sense.

So what is the Bible Belt? Is it where Baptists predominate, as shown on this map? Is it where high percentages of the population belong to one church or another, as in the map from my previous entry? Or is it where the two intersect? A map of the latter would start in eastern New Mexico, be darkest red in western Texas and western Oklahoma, and extend through Arkansas and northern Louisiana to Mississippi and Alabama.

And the "buckle" of the Bible Belt? I would nominate two areas where not only do high percentages of the population belong to a church, and where the leading church is Baptist, but where the Baptists claim more than half the population (see the counties marked with diamonds on the full-size map): an area running from western Texas to western Oklahoma, and another running from southwestern Alabama through northeastern Louisiana and into southeastern Arkansas.

April 12, 2006

The Bible Sash? The Bible Necktie?

Via Andrew Sullivan, via Geitner Simmons, an intriguing series of maps portraying the distribution of religious adherents in America.

US Religion: Religious Adherents

Religious adherents in the US.

What I find interesting about this map is how the Bible Belt doesn't seem to exist the way I would have thought it did. I suppose I imagined it as starting in Texas and Oklahoma, with a tip up in Missouri, down through all the Southeastern states. It isn't that at all. The Bible Belt is vertical, running from Alabama to Texas in the South, and from Wisconsin to North Dakota in the North. The counties colored brick red -- those with 75 percent adherents or more -- run almost in a straight line, from west Texas north to northern Iowa, southern Minnesota, eastern South Dakota, and all of North Dakota. And of course most of the state of Utah.

Have we had it wrong about the Bible Belt? Is it really the Bible Sash? The Bible Necktie?

March 12, 2006

"Yours Is a Literalism of Convenience"

Miami Herald columnist Leonard Pitts Jr. writes an open letter to a Miami-area high school teacher, Donna Reddick, who participated in a student-produced television segment broadcast within the school. The segment was part of a series featuring pro- and anti-gay opinions. In Reddick's segment, after anti-gay students had made their comments, she made hers:

The coup de grace... was you, invoking Sodom and Gomorrah and telling students homosexuality was "wrong according to the Bible" because God ordered humanity to multiply, which gay couples cannot do...

Put simply, I've had it up to here with the moral hypocrisy and intellectual constipation of Bible literalists.

By which I mean people like you, who dress their homophobia up in Scripture, insisting with sanctimonious sincerity that it's not homophobia at all, but just a pious determination to live according to what the Bible says. And never mind that the Bible also says it is "disgraceful" for a woman to speak out in church (1 Corinthians 14:34-36) and that if she has any questions, she should wait till she gets home and ask her husband. Never mind that the Bible says the penalty for going to work on Sunday (Exodus 35:1-3) is death. Never mind that the Bible says the man who rapes a virgin should buy her from her father (Deuteronomy 22:28-29) and marry her.

I'm going to speculate that you don't observe or support those commands. Which says to me that yours is a literalism of convenience, a literalism that is literal only so long as it allows you to condemn what you'd be condemning anyway and takes no skin off your personal backside. As such, your claim that God sanctions your homophobia is the moral equivalent of Flip Wilson's old claim that the devil made him do it.

You resemble many of your and my co-religionists, whose faith so often expresses itself in an obsessive focus on one or two hot-button issues -- and seemingly nowhere else. They're so panicked at the thought that somebody might accidentally treat gay people like people. They run around Chicken Little-like, screaming, "Th' homosex'shals is comin'! Th' homosex'shals is comin'!" Meantime, people are ignorant in Appalachia, strung out in Miami, starving in Niger, sex slaves in India, mass murdered in Darfur. Where is the Christian outrage about that?

"[Y]ours is a literalism of convenience, a literalism that is literal only so long as it allows you to condemn what you'd be condemning anyway and takes no skin off your personal backside." Brilliant.

Pitts could have added the following instructions from the Bible:

  • Women must not wear gold or pearls (1 Timothy 2:9).
  • A woman must not "teach or... have authority over a man" (1 Timothy 2:12).
  • People must not "not wear clothing woven of two kinds of material" (Leviticus 19:19).
  • Men must not shave (Leviticus 19:27).
  • People must not eat rabbit (Leviticus 11:6), pork (Leviticus 11:7), or shellfish (Leviticus 11:9-12).
(A tip of the hat to this page for source material.)

I suppose I'll take more seriously someone protesting homosexuality on Biblical grounds when they can show me they never work on Sunday; don't eat rabbit, pork, or shellfish; don't shave; don't wear knit fabric; and don't allow their wives to speak out in church, teach men, or wear gold or pearls. I'll think they're incredibly silly, but at least I won't think they're quite as hypocritical as most of their anti-gay brethren.

March 04, 2006

"The Everything Zen Book"

I've decided to keep a log here of the books I read in 2006. In most cases, I won't review the books, but I'll at least include an excerpt from each, and in some cases a bit of commentary.

The first book I read this year was The Everything Zen Book: Achieve Inner Calm and Peace of Mind Through Meditation, Simple Living, and Harmony.

From the book:

Many of the great religions and spiritual practices tell us the same thing: True happiness lies in getting outside of ourselves and helping others. To be locked inside oneself, obsessed with one's own thoughts and needs, is to truly suffer. It is to suffer the bondage of self. Real freedom exists when you cease thinking of yourself all day long...

We live in a time in which we are often coddled and told, "Take care of yourself." We are admonished to take time for ourselves and pamper ourselves. We deserve time off, long baths, new clothes, and a dinner out. We overindulge, overspend, and overeat. And we are not happy! Clearly, the way to a peaceful life is not through spending more money, eating more food, and paying more attention to your own needs.

To be honest, I bought this book because I was looking for a basic introductory book on Zen, but I didn't want something with "...for Dummies" or "The Idiot's Guide to..." in the title. It was pretty much what I expected it to be: straightforward, easy to read, and written for absolute beginners. Reading it convinced me to give Zen a try -- there's a beginner's session at my local zendo tomorrow, and I'm looking forward to seeing how it goes.

January 13, 2006

Quote for the Day

From The Everything Zen Book:

Do not put off what you can do right now. Do not sit around thinking about what it is like after you die, or what it would be like to be enlightened. Do not wonder what it is like to be peaceful and to find that "place of inherent peace." Find it.

December 23, 2005

Quote for the Day

Yet another great quote courtesy of What Would Buddha Do? 101 Answers to Life's Daily Dilemmas. This is from the Anguttara Nikaya 5.43:

It's not fitting for the disciple of the noble ones who desires happiness to pray for it... Instead, the disciple of the noble ones who desires happiness should follow the path of practice leading to happiness.

December 20, 2005

Quote for the Day

From What Would Buddha Do? 101 Answers to Life's Daily Dilemmas by Franz Metcalf. First the specific quote:

The real possession is life itself, and even that is only on loan.
Now the context:
What would Buddha do about material possessions?
See them floundering after their cherished possessions, like fish flopping in a river starved of water.

Sutta Nipata 777

Buddha compares us to these tragic fish, gasping in the brutal air, frantically looking for heaven-knows-what. Are we searching for deeper water? Are we struggling to snatch the last shred of food? Most pitiful of all, are we aggressively defending some useless possession in the very face of death?

We are some spectacle, I no less than the rest of us! I've told you about my computer -- wait until you hear about my house and car. Meanwhile I age, I slowly die, but I continue to vainly thrash around. We have got to remember, the real possession is life itself, and even that is only on loan. Buddha doesn't say we cannot enjoy the beautiful things we are lucky enough to have. He does say we should not let them distract us from our real job: awakening to our life and death.

September 04, 2005

The Unreliability of Life

I've blogged before about Stephen Batchelor's book Living with the Devil. He has an gift for elegant prose, and when he's at his best, he can be profoundly moving:

[C]reated things are subject to breakdown, corruption, deception, and extinction. They are ultimately unreliable. No matter how well we care for this organism of flesh and nerves and blood, it will one day fail us. "The undependable lord of death," remarks Shantideva, "waits not for things to be done or undone. Whether sick or healthy, this fleeting life cannot be trusted." The stuff of which we are made, that allows the possibility of consciousness, love, and freedom, will also destroy us, wiping out that poignant identity of a sensitive creature with an unrepeatable history, who has become a question for itself.

August 01, 2005


From Living with the Devil by Stephen Batchelor, author of Buddhism Without Beliefs:

"I yearn to be free of pain," wrote the eighth-century Indian Buddhist Shantideva, "but rush straight into it; I long for happiness, but foolishly crush it like an enemy." A thousand years later, Pascal noted how "we desire truth and find in ourselves nothing but uncertainty. We seek happiness and find only misery and death." Such contradictoriness is more than an occasional moral lapse that could be corrected by the fear of punishment or a timely boost of righteousness. It appears to be knit into the fabric of existence itself.

June 05, 2004

"Buddhism Without Beliefs"

I've been reading an amazing book, Buddhism Without Beliefs: A Contemporary Guide to Awakening by Stephen Batchelor. In essence, it's Buddhism for agnostics. The more I read about Buddhism, the more I read that most of my perception of it -- temples, statues, monks in robes, prayer wheels, lamas reincarnated in children, and so on -- has been added on by successive generations of people over the last 2,500 years. Stripping all that away leaves something that's more akin to a philosophy than a religion.

In any case, this passage on craving has been much on my mind of late:

Moods dictate my behavior. If something makes me feel good, I want to have it; if it makes me feel bad, I want to get rid of it; if it leaves me indifferent, I ignore it. I find myself in a perpetual state of conflict: emotionally pulled one way and pushed the other. Yet underpinning both attraction and aversion is craving: the childish and utopian thirst for a situation in which I finally possess everything I desire and have repelled everything I dislike. Deep down I insist that a permanent, separate self is entitled to a life removed from the contingencies and uncertainties of existence.

And I invest my icons of craving with absolute finality. Be they sex, fame, or wealth, they shine before me with an intoxicating allure unsullied by the ambiguities of lived experience. I do not consider their implications. Diapers and tantrums figure as little in my fantasies of sexual conquest as do journalists and taxes in my daydreams of fame and wealth.

Such craving is crystallized from the spinning turmoil of confusion. In my metaphorical blindness, I reach out desperately for something to cling to. I yearn for anything that might assuage the sense of loss, anguish, isolation, aimlessness. But craving is distorted and disturbed by the very confusion it seeks to dispel. It exaggerates the desirability of what it longs to possess and the hatefulness of what it wants to be rid of. Bewitched by its own projections, it elevates its goals into matters of supreme significance. Under the spell of craving, my whole life hinges on the acquisition or banishment of something. "If only..." becomes the mantra of unconsummated desire.

A world of contingency and change can offer only simulacra of perfection. When driven by craving, I am convinced that if only I were able to achieve this goal, all would be well. While creating the illusion of a purposeful life, craving is really the loss of direction. It spins me around in circles, covering the same ground again and again. Each time I think I have found a situation that solves all my problems, it suddenly turns out to be a reconfiguration of the very situation I thought I was escaping from. My sense of having found a new lease on life turns out to be merely a repetition of the past. I realize I am running on the spot, frantically going nowhere...

Life becomes a succession of minibirths and minideaths. When I acheive what I want, I feel reborn. But no sooner have I settled into this feeling than the old anxieties resurface. The new possession swiftly ages as it is diminished by the allure of something more desirable that I do not have. What seemed perfect is abruptly compromised by alarming glimpses of its imperfections. Instead of solving my problems, this new situation replaces them with others I had never suspected. Yet rather than accepting this as the nature of living in an unreliable world, rather than learning to be content with success and joy and not to be overwhelmed by failure and pain, rather than appreciating life's poignant, tragic, and sad beauty, I grit my teeth and struggle on in thrall to that quiet, seductive voice that whispers: "If only..."