Monday, March 19, 2007

One more harm of categorizing

Coturnix compiled the following list of behaviors and conditions as examples of what people might be referring to when they speak of being "spiritual"[ I added the last two]:

  • A) People who really believe in ghosts, spirits, talking with the dead and Ouija boards.
  • B) People currently under the influence of LSD
  • C) People who get the strong emotional feelings of awe when contemplating the vastness of the Universe, the endlessness of Time, the beauty of a mountain, the elegance of a mathematical proof, the amazing adaptations of a tapeworm, or the complexity of the human brain.
  • D) People who get into a trance when dancing
  • E) Atheists when asked by an angry mob of aggressive, dangerous and heavily armed believers.
  • F) Believers when asked by an angry mob of aggressive, dangerous and heavily armed atheists.
  • G) Dogs after marking the fire hydrant.
  • H) People whose goal is to alienate the least number of potential matches on online dating sites.
  • I) People who bought into some New-Age crap.
  • J) Westerners who practice an Eastern religion.
  • K) People who read their horoscopes, burn the incense, use untested health products from Health-Food stores and keep their dentures under pyramid-shaped toys.
  • L) People bearing up with something more than the shrug of stoicism when they are facing the crushing harms that living inevitably dishes out: loss of health, wealth, friends or life itself.
  • M)An inclination to experience, when in the presence of particular harmonious groups of persons, the additional presence of that harmony itself.

The term "spiritual" is vague enough to cover belief systems I find laughable but by the same token vague enough to encompass unaccountably compassionate behaviours too. So the basic point of this post is a pretty safe assertion. But there is more than a whiff of cynicism in the post, as if the falibility of intuitive operating is per force always inferior to some more rational view. Not always. Wanting logic in its workings, the intuitive ways cannot guarantee or explain why they sometimes achieve benign states and consequences yet that is a baby some are unwilling to toss with the bathwater.

To imply that acting on anything but logic and verifiable facts is always a wrong or inferior way to live is arrogance...the data simply is NOT available for some conclusions which we must none the less reach. Are we answering the arrogance of fundamentalists or their self serving delusions with more arrogance? The inclination to question does not make one better than the 95% of humanity who are, after all, doing the best they can within their scant resources. Skepticism without humility or sympathy is less effective than it imagines itself to be.

The burden here should be on the mockers of the "spiritual" to use, by coining new categories if need be, accurate labels for the things they disrespect and can prove to be detrimental or selfish. When those are pared away, something may still be left to respect. We who know enough to think it a trivial exercise to debunk the intellectual laziness of new-age healing quackery and appeals to impossible miracles should be wary of the laziness of tossing a blanket category that covers the follies and then castigate by association everything that has fallen under the blanket.

We can not blame our own catch-all for what it caught.

Footnotes: This post grew out of Coturnix's which in turn grew out of several posts on the topic, mostly among the SEED science blogs...its a rich thread and has some good commenting if you dig back through the ancestry that Coturnix has linked to. I see that PZ's post on spirituality in response to Charles Taylor's winning the Templeton prize was actually where I first brought my two cents to the discussion.

Thursday, March 1, 2007

The gods must be crazies

Visitors who have some religious faith, do not be put off by the post title: it bears on a much narrower and more realistic matter than it may imply. Not only are you welcome here, you probably have the most important things to say.

I am curious: in America, one of the stereotypes of madness we on the outside of mental hospitals used to hold was of the fellow who was convinced that he was god or alternatively, Jesus. Claim that too loudly and they came after you with a straight jacket. It was funny not because it was crazy but because it was scary. "They'll lock you up next to Napoleon!" Jim Jones was arguably one of these crazies but David Koresh was not.

It is probably a lot harder to come by an accurate census of what the most common delusions are these days. Chlorpromazine and its descendants have emptied the state mental hospitals onto the streets and homeless shelters. The census I really want will never be taken, probably is impossible to gather meaningfully. In countries where Christianity is not the dominant religion and where someone who states that he is the deity is not promptly run thSave as Draftrough with a sword, what are the varieties of religious delusion? Did a Hindu pantheon rant behind the bars of an asylum in New Delhi? Were the funny farms of Tibet full of dishevelled Buddhas and the wards in Canton inhabited by assorted people claiming they were Confucius? I know its insensitive, macabre and Thurberesque, but as data, I think it would be interesting.

[my apology for calving a this post out of its predecessor but that first post wanted thematic cohesiveness and this quest, as I hope will become a pattern, raises a question in a narrow context, suitable for a bounded discussion on the topic of kinds of belief or at least, of believing]